No offense to Welington Castillo, but the hottest topic in Orioles land right now is whether the team should trade Zach Britton. Clubs, unsurprisingly, have shown interest in a possible deal. Scour the web and you’ll find polemics both for and against one. I’m here to argue the latter case.
The Case For Trading Britton
The case for trading Britton isn’t hard to make. He’ll make $11.4 million next year, as projected by MLB Trade Rumors. That’s a lot of scratch for an ostensibly mid-market club to pay someone to pitch 70 innings.
His trade could fill holes on the team’s roster. The market for relief pitching is crazypants right now; it has been ever since the Royals won the World Series with a thin rotation fronting a superlative bullpen. Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen each signed for $80-plus million. Chapman himself, with half a season of control remaining, was traded last year for several big-name prospects. Andrew Miller was also traded last year for a similar haul. Heck, Brett Cecil signed for $30 million this offseason.
Britton surely would garner major-league talent in a trade. In the midst of this red-hot reliever market, he had his finest season yet, placing fourth in the Cy Young balloting. It was his third straight year of dominance and the nation took notice. He also has two years of team control remaining. Oh, and he’s left-handed.
The Orioles have roster spots that a trade could fill. They’re weakest in the outfield, particularly at the corners. Hyun Soo Kim proved he can handle left field when the team is facing a right-hander, but the Orioles have no quality right-handed bat to platoon him with. Meanwhile, right field remains a flirtation with Mark Trumbo; besides him, no serious candidates exist. The team will also need a backup center fielder more and more as Adam Jones‘ body continues to wear down. He’s spent more and more time on the DL.
If Britton leaves, quality relief options remain. Darren O’Day and Brad Brach are on the roster. They can close out games just as effectively as Britton can. So what’s the harm in Dan Duquette doing a little window shopping?
The Case Against Trading Britton
The statements above are true. But they matter much less than the statements I’m about to make. The Orioles should, in no uncertain terms, hang on to Zach Britton through at least the middle of 2018. Here’s why.
The Orioles are at a high point on the marginal win curve, perhaps the highest point there is. They’ve proven they can contend, but they aren’t so dominant they can afford to get weaker. As Jeff Sullivan noted recently, the team’s path to contention is narrow.
And it will only get narrower. After 2017, Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, and utilityman Ryan Flaherty are free agents. And after 2018, the wheels come off: Manny Machado is a free agent. So is Adam Jones. So are Brach, Yovani Gallardo, J.J. Hardy, Wade Miley, and Britton himself. I can hardly believe it as I type these names out, but the guys Orioles fans know and love aren’t around much longer. Most of these guys are above-average players; nearly all are good.
The team knows their window is short. It’s why they paid a premium for Chris Davis, signed O’Day, and extended Hardy. It’s why they forfeited draft picks to sign Gallardo, Jimenez, and Nelson Cruz. And it’s why they’ve traded their last three competitive-balance picks: one to Atlanta, one to Houston, and one to the Dodgers.
Because the team is in win-now mode, the risk of handing meaningful games to less-talented pitchers outweighs the reward of saving Britton’s salary. Brach or O’Day could save a lot of games. They’re very good. Mychal Givens could save a game or two, assuming he’s facing all righties. But Britton is about as close as you can get to a sure thing in the ninth inning. The team has too far to fall, and the likelihood that they could climb back up again after 2018 is slim, given all the pending free agents.
A narrow path to contention means small fluctuations in high-leverage performance can sink the team easily. Britton has two advantages over an outfielder he’d fetch in trade: Buck can deploy him according to leverage (AL Wild Card Game aside), and Britton’s shown he can dominate in any context. An outfielder doesn’t provide the same flexibility. Buck can’t control when a batter belts a walk-off home run or when a fielder makes a game-saving grab.
Finally, Britton’s value is not at its highest point. The market for reliever trades reaches its peak around the trade deadline, when teams have wins in the bank and are tempted to push for, or solidify a hold on, a playoff spot. Chapman and Miller and wouldn’t have returned the players they did if the Yankees had traded them in December. Brian Cashman intelligently waited until the trade deadline to ship these two off.
Dan Duquette should absolutely trade Zach Britton… if the team is out of contention at the 2018 trade deadline. At that point, Brach, Britton, and Machado should all go on the block. These guys are so talented that even three months of their services should return multiple prospects each. O’Day should also go on the block at this point, and if there are any takers, perhaps Hardy and Jones as well.
But don’t trade Britton now. Doing so needlessly risks the 2017 and 2018 seasons, undercutting moves Duquette has made since 2014.