09 November 2017

Orioles 2018 Blueprint Follow-Up: Why I Decided to Non-Tender Zach Britton

Zach Britton (photo via Keith Allison)
A couple of weeks ago, some of the writers here at Camden Depot went through our annual exercise of outlining our vision of how the Orioles should approach the offseason. My blueprint was the first to be published, and within it, I made the somewhat controversial decision to non-tender Baltimore closer Zach Britton. By doing so, the move saved me $12.2 million in payroll, but significantly weakened my proposed bullpen. For our fictional exercise, I thought the move was necessary to make the club as competitive as it could be for the 2018. And instead of getting into all of the reasons as to why I thought it was best to non-tender Britton within that piece (essentially inserting 1,000+ word tangent), I promised that I would post a follow up article detailing my reasons for doing so. Well, here it is.

With one more season of Manny Machado and Adam Jones, I wanted to put the best team possible on the field to compete in 2018, without much consideration as to what the team would look like in the following season. To do accomplish that, the two main things I was focused on in my blueprint was strengthening the bench with players who could play multiple positions and remaking the starting rotation. A more complete bench was the easy task, and in my view that goal was accomplished by signing Jon Jay, Howie Kendrick, and Cliff Pennington.

There is no getting around the fact that the 2017 Baltimore starting rotation was terrible. The only good thing about them was that the 3 worst performers were all going to be free agents.

2017 Baltimore Orioles SP Ranks
Like many of the other writers, I believed the lack of quality starting pitchers in the minor league system meant that it was essential to sign at least 3 starting pitchers. I believed that the only way to significantly improve the rotation was to get the best starting pitcher available, and in my mind that was Yu Darvish. With Darvish costing $17.3 million per year (and considering all the other areas this team needed to improve as well as a limited budget), my decision essentially boiled down to whether I would want Britton or Darvish. I chose Darvish.

The main reason I felt why I ad to go with Darvish was due to just how BAD the Orioles starting rotation was in 2017/could be in 2018. The Orioles have proven that they don’t need a great rotation to be successful and make the playoffs. However, the 2017 rotation was so bad (combined with the lack of internal options), I believed that anything less than Darvish would be applying a band-aid to a wound that required 40 stitches. And while he’s looked at as an injury risk, he’s coming off a sub-par season, where he was still worth 3.5 fWAR (3.9 bWAR). He’s averaged 4.1 fWAR (4.2 bWAR) per 180 IP over the course of his career. To put that into perspective, the Orioles haven’t had a starting pitcher eclipse the 3.0 fWAR mark since Erik Bedard did it in 2006 (4.6) and 2007 (5.0).

Comparing average Yu Darvish against Zach Britton at his absolute best (2.5 fWAR during the 2016 season), the Orioles get an additional 1.6 wins for the added cost of $5 million. I realize that Darvish would come with an additional 3 years of commitment according to our BORAS projection system, but as I mentioned, I was only concerned with 2018. Granted that average Darvish versus the best Britton argument doesn’t work when using bWAR bWAR (which based on run prevention instead of FIP), but what is the likelihood we see 2016 Britton again in 2018? It’s not impossible, but coming off an injury-plagued season with good (but not great) numbers, I think it’s highly unlikely.

Britton missed most of May, all of June, and the beginning of July due to a strained left forearm. He was then shut down for the rest of the season after his September 18th appearance due to an MCL sprain in his left knee, an injury that was serious enough for him to receive a stem cell injection. When he did pitch, he was effective, but certainly not his usual self, finishing with career worst strikeout and walk rates (since being transitioned to the bullpen full time).

Obviously I don’t know exactly how bad either of those injuries are, but that forearm injury (combined with his performance) was a big reason why teams weren’t offering a trade package the Orioles liked at the deadline. Along with the knee injury, he didn’t do anything the last two months of the season to bring his trade value back up. When you combine the injuries, the performance, and the assumption that he’ll make $12.2 million in his 4th and final year of arbitration, I don’t believe that he has much trade value. This kind of torpedoes the idea of tendering him a contract and trading him later in the offseason. If the Orioles couldn’t find an attractive offer at the 2017 trade deadline, they’re certainly not going to find a better one this offseason. Furthermore, I don’t think his value will be that high at the 2018 trade deadline if the Orioles are out of it. The only way the Orioles get a good package for him is if he pitches like he did in 2016 again and there’s a desperate contender who needs a closer. Again, that scenario is possible, just not probable.

The need to greatly improve the starting rotation, combined with the injury questions and decreased trade value of Zach Britton, led to my decision to non-tender him. I ultimately thought the $12.2 million saved could be better spent to make the team better in 2018. So if I were actually sitting in the GM chair in real life, would I still take the same course of action? Probably not (actually, almost definitely not).

For the purposes of our blueprint exercise, I stand by my decision. But I don’t think it’s a smart one to make in real life. And that’s not because the fans would probably be pissed about non-tendering a favorite (although that should be given consideration as well). The real reason you don’t non-tender Zach Britton is because it’s not guaranteed that you’ll be able to reinvest those savings into players that will improve the team. The readers who commented on my blueprint started to hit on this topic a bit. Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb, and all of the other players we proposed to sign are human beings. They have a choice of where they want to play. If they don’t want to play in Baltimore, they’re not going to sign with Baltimore. The blueprint exercise takes that choice away from them. Non-tendering Britton in real life could very possibly yield a team without Zach Britton and an extra $12.2 million. That may be ok for the owners of the team, but from the perspective of being competitive, the Orioles would be decidedly worse off.


Anonymous said...

That's why you sign and trade. Just like the Jim Johnson experience. Only Johnson got traded for a bucket of balls known as Jemille Weeks. The O's could certainly get a fringe SP for Britton, if not more. That would certainly be better than non-tendering. I'm going to go back once again to thetrade I think makes most sense of anything I've heard - Trumbo and Britton to the Braves for Kemp and SP (some combination of guys like Teheran/Sims/Wisler/Blair/Folty - you guys can pick what you think is fair). The money would mostly be a wash except that the O's save some this year and the Braves save some next year (unless they re-sign Britton which they could do or at least give him a QO). Kemp would be a great DH only (see Cruz, Nelson) and could get a reasonable candidate for the rotation along with it. Kemp should never be in the field and could turn into a RH Papi. The Braves get some power and a shut down reliever both of which are stated goals and they can afford to give Trumbo some time in the OF with Enciarte and Acuna to cover for him.

Jon Shepherd said...

Johnson was not signed and traded. He was traded and then offered arbitration.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

There is nothing to suggest Matt Kemp would be a great DH. Please just let that trade idea die.

Pip said...

This was an excellent article, and I appreciate the sentiments. However, it is sadly too late for anything except choosing between several very bad alternatives.
A good GM treats his assets at the peak of their value, and prepares for the replacement of that value by drafting intelligently. For all the noise about Oriole ownership of being cheap, The money spent on free agency refutes that. The problem is not spending money, but wasting it.
The best of the bad alternatives is undoubtedly to hang on to Britton and, regardless of how the team is doing at the deadline, trade him for whatever we can get.
Even if we're doing very well at the deadline, closer is the most easily replaceable of the key ingredients on a playoff team.
The Orioles are not a championship team by any definition, but they might be a playoff team, and Britton is almost certainly more valuable for what he could provide in the future then he would be for what he provides next August.
( and the supplemental question is whether he would turn down the qualifying offer. There's every possibility he won't perform well enough to warrant receiving one, and that he would accept immediately if he did, which makes trading him all the more important.)

Unknown said...

He won't be non-tendered, so we can move on from that.

Anonymous said...

OK, Jon, let's trade him before non-tendering or tendering. Either way (before or after arb) the trade is the same.

Matt, as long as Trumbo can't DH and Britton is too expensive, something has to be done. Non-tendering is really not an option because you give away a real asset and get nothing in return. You don't like Kemp, I get it - no one really does, but look at his stats. When healthy is is an above average hitter whose value is dragged down by his fielding. Big Papi didn't look all that good until he became a full time DH. When he was healthy early last year, Kemp was a monster and absolutely carried the Braves offense. Plus he's not really that old. What we're really talking about is trying to find some SP that is controllable and cheap. You gotta give to get.

Find me a better option where we eliminate the idea of Trumbo playing OF, getting something of value in return for Britton, and we get a MLB-ready or near-MLB-ready SP for no additional cost. I would rather try Kemp at DH and then release him if it doesn't work.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I already wrote about a couple of trade possibilities for Trumbo. I wouldn't trade Britton right now anyway.

Unknown said...

According to baseball-reference.com, the Braves owe Kemp 31 million for two years. Trumbo's contract is 26 million for two years. I can't see any way that the Braves would take on Trumbo for a 5 million savings.

Also, the Braves are unlikely to give something significant for a rental closer until they know for sure that they will contend in 2018. Maybe mid-summer, if they're in the race, but not now. I could see them trading Sims, Blair, and Wisler for Britton, but I don't think that's what the Orioles have in mind.

Pip said...

Roger, the very last thing this team needs is another one dimensional player who is useless in every other dimension.
Nobody wants Trumbo. Nobody should want Trumbo. Roster flexibility is important and neither Trumbo nor Kemp offers that.
Dumping Trumbo to get out from under the contract is the best and only possible option, but even that is highly unlikely.
Absent that, the suggested first place platoon is the best option, and Dan needs to stand in the corner for re-signing Trumbo in the first place.
"Yeah he's bad, but whatta deal!"

Anonymous said...

Joe, you're right. I have been thinking Trumbo was owed something like $24M and Kemp $38M, so I was working off not quite accurate numbers. On the other hand, Braves bloggers have been talking about deals like Kemp+Wentz for Ian Kennedy or Kemp+Tarnok+Muller to White Sox for Matt Cooper. Kemp has negative value because he DOES play the field and Trumbo has negative value when he DOESN'T play the field. As opposed to a pure salary dump for the Braves they can turn it into a change of scenery trade for both teams and the Braves don't lose prospects and they can also more freely trade Matt Adams if Trumbo is there to back up Freeman at 1B. The Braves have a lot of excess high minors SP and much of it is not slated for long term use. One of their publicly stated goals is to obtain a couple of relievers which is where the O's have some excess and a probable very expensive closer. Also, if the Braves get Britton, they can offer him a QO next year and get a decent draft pick back - something the O's wouldn't make much use of (and, if he accepts the QO then the Braves get two years of a closer not one). You may be right that they are more likely to do that in July, but that would eliminate the QO possibility and the O's could use a guy like Sims right away and Wisler/Blair each have an option remaining to prove themselves in the Majors. I dunno, seems like there's a potential match there somewhere.

Unknown said...

"The only way the Orioles get a good package for him is if he pitches like he did in 2016 again and there’s a desperate contender who needs a closer. Again, that scenario is possible, just not probable."

But its worth paying a one year $12m salary to find out. The only pathway the Orioles have at competing is having a dominant bullpen to support a starting rotation that will be average at best no matter who is signed. If Britton flakes out in worst case scenario, you simply don't resign him after the season. The potential gain for letting Britton walk in exchange for an extra free agent or two who project as average is limited. You have to assume Britton will be totally unproductive or injured all season to have that thinking. I don't see any evidence to suggest that Britton has no chance to be good again.

Jon Shepherd said...

I am ot a proponent of letting Britton go, but the issue is not whether you think Britton is productive or not. It is whether the production and cost at his current position is replaceable there more cheaply and whether the savings can be usefully applied elsewhere.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

Try reading the article next time before making such a silly comment.

Jon Shepherd said...

NOTE: I have just removed a comment from the list here. If you disagree with something that is written, then feel free to express that in an adult way. Give some evidence to why you think what you think. Your response should not be a series of attacks on the author.

It need not be said, but also respect the other commenting here.

I will not tolerate any other behavior.