03 April 2011

The Pros and Cons of Zach Britton

It appears that when Brian Matusz was hit by LJ Hoes' line drive, he twisted sharply and suffered a Grade II strain on his intercostal muscles.  This set up a flurry of medical tests and plane tickets that has placed Matusz on the 15 day DL, likely to be out for six weeks, and Zach Britton getting the call on Sunday in Tampa.  The original plan was for Britton to pick up a month or two in Norfolk before sliding into the rotation in Baltimore, thereby giving the Orioles and additional year of control over his contract.  If he now spends less than 20 days from here on in the minors outside of rehabilitation stints, that year comes back to the Orioles.  You may remember that this was exactly what happened to JJ Hardy when Milwaukee optioned him to the minors in 2009 and prevented him from entering free agency last off season.

How does this effect the Orioles in the long term?
Well, losing out on Zach Britton is a concern.  The value of an average pitcher in 2010 dollars is about 10MM on the free agent market.  Lets assume, Britton is an average pitcher from 2011 to 2016.  In 2010 dollars, his saving each year would be about 9.5, 9.5, 10, 6, 4, and 2MM.  If you delayed him from the start, you get him for seven years and see something like 9.5, 9.5, 8, 10, 6, 4, and 2MM.  With that perspective, you lose one year of an average pitcher at 2MM.  Or 8MM to subsidize a pitcher.  That 8MM could then be used to put someone like Derrek Lee at first base for a season.  So, it is a considerable savings.  Even more so when this is practiced as a full on strategy because you wind up saving money long term on the performance of several players and all you had to do was not have one of them for 20 days.

Realistically though . . . how does this effect the Orioles in the long term?
It probably does not.  In all likelihood, Zach Britton will not be an average pitcher six years from now.  If you look at Baseball America's top 100 prospects over the past 20 seasons, pitching prospects who ranked in the 21 to 30 range (Zach Britton was ranked 28th this season) were considered "busts" 79.4% of the time.  In other words, four out of five Zach Brittons are not going to be able to keep themselves in a Major League rotation over the course of six seasons.  What the Orioles are losing is a 8MM lottery ticket that they will win on 20% of the time . . . six years from now.

Does this make sense?
For the Orioles . . . I do not see really any way it makes sense.  The team has a 2-3% chance to make it to the playoffs.  The difference between Zach Britton and Rick VandenHurk or Mark Hendrickson over the course of four to six starts is probably worth about half a win to a full win in the standings.  Let us say, it is worth two wins to be generous.  The Orioles will likely need to win 92 games to win the Wild Card and I currently have them hovering just below a .500 team.  It is highly unlikely that the team is a 90 win team (I have them as a 3.2% likelihood of reaching 90 wins), so that 8MM lottery ticket is potentially being tossed in the drainage grate in exchange for nothing.

However, for a team teetering on the edge of the playoffs, an increase in two wins is quite a considerable value.  Teams bring in about 1.5-2 MM for every home playoff game they play.  If the player makes enough of a difference that his presence on the team is the deciding factor on them making the playoffs, then just by being in the divisional series the team will break even in value.  This does not consider any potential gains in attendance at the beginning of the following year due to the playoff appearance.

In other words, a team like the Yankees should have Zach Britton in their rotation without regard to contract status while a team like the Orioles should not.  However, I will be quite interested in seeing Britton dealing in the low 90s and inducing grounders 60% of the time.

Note - Super Two status is most likely not an issue here as the next Collective Bargaining Agreement because that status is likely not going to be there.

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