Should the Blue Jays take a chance on free agent lefty Zack Britton?
By Evan Gignac
Former All-Star reliever, Zack Britton, remains unsigned. Rumored throughout the offseason to be a fit for the Toronto Blue Jays, Britton had a few auditions for MLB clubs during the spring. These efforts didn’t yield a result, however, as the lefty reliever remains a free agent.
Is the former Oriole and Yankee a fit on this Blue Jays roster? A glance at the bullpen depth chart would give the short answer of ‘yes’. However, a deeper look at the skillsets of the present group, matched with the projected performance of a 35-year-old Britton, may result in a different answer.
To start, some sort of projection needs to be made of Britton. Long removed from his All-Star seasons in 2015 and 2016, the lefty’s last full season came in 2019. That season was a dominant one, as he pitched to a 1.91 ERA while limiting hitters to a 5.6 H/9 against him. This made his 4.7 BB/9 a bit more tolerable, as Britton was effectively erratic around the strike zone. Inducing a lot of soft contact with his sinker and slider, Britton was an effective reliever in a deep Yankees pen.
A slew of injuries would limit him to 19 innings over the last two seasons, which when factored in fail to paint an accurate picture of where he’s at as a pitcher in 2023’s MLB. His sinker, slider combo utilized for the majority of his time as a relief pitcher would no doubt play against major league hitters, it’s just the quality of the pitches and overall health that remain in question.
Britton’s services come with a lot of unknowns. He is projected by FanGraphs to throw 34 innings and pitch to a respectable 3.82 ERA. However, these projections are made on the basis that he's ready for an MLB season. Britton has been battling a sprained MCL, in addition to struggling to return to effectiveness after Tommy John surgery.
The question remains, is all of this uncertainty better than what the Blue Jays currently have to offer in their bullpen?
Britton’s hypothetical role would be a medium leverage reliever with an emphasis on matching up against left-handed batters. The Blue Jays already have a player who fills that role, and then some, in Tim Mayza. Despite what fan discourse might have you think, Mayza has been a good reliever through the course of his major league career, with his best season coming in 2022. Mayza limited lefties to a .502 OPS last year, and has enjoyed a good start to his 2023.
By no means is this assessment designed to place Mayza on a pedestal, it’s simply illustrating that the Blue Jays have someone currently succeeding in the hypothetical role that Britton would be brought in to fill. Mayza gets left-handed hitters out consistently. He shouldn’t be John Schnieder’s choice late in games in high leverage, but he doesn’t have to be.
So the Blue Jays already have a reliever capable of retiring lefties, but why not add depth? Mayza is the only left-handed reliever in the bullpen, so would the addition of Britton still not be smart, even if he isn’t completely consistent?
The answer to that is solved when you look at the splits of the newest Jays reliever, Erik Swanson. Despite being right-handed, Swanson pitched as good, if not better against left-handed hitters last season, limiting them to a lowly slash line of .200/.222/.295. Regardless of it being a small sample size, this trend has continued into 2023, with lefties only being 1-for-13 against him, striking out in six of those at-bats.
In addition to Swanson, Trevor Richards has dispatched lefties with ease to begin the season. Say what you want about the man, as many of his outings have been a rollercoaster for your blood pressure, but his fastball, changeup combo has been devastating to left-handed hitters. Lefties are 2-for-16 against him this season with eight strikeouts mixed in.
In summation, unpacking the Blue Jays bullpen depth reveals that there isn’t a clear need for a second left-hander. The Jays don’t need help getting lefties out, as both Mayza and the two righties fare well in those matchups. Mayza is the obvious case, as his sinker-slider repertoire coming from the left side inducing a lot of soft contact from lefties. The repertoire of a solid fastball and plus off-speed pitch from either Swanson or Richards gives them their edge, and it’s an edge the Jays are better of utilizing when the situation doesn’t call for Mayza.