Back in October, the Baltimore Orioles made headlines for not using baseball’s best closer in a do-or-die situation that begged for him to be used. A couple of months later, it could be happening again.
To be clear, the purpose is now entirely different. In October, Zach Britton could’ve helped the O’s win the wild-card game. Here in December, Britton could help save their farm system and ensure their long-term viability in the AL East.
In case you haven’t heard, the closer market recently relocated to Crazytown, USA. In July, the Indians coughed up four players, including two of their top prospects, to acquire Yankees reliever Andrew Miller. The Cubs did the same thing to procure the services of Aroldis Chapman -- for all of three months before he became a free agent. But wait, there’s more: Last Monday, former Pirates and Nationals closer Mark Melancon signed a four-year, $62 million contract that was the richest deal ever given to a reliever. Two days later, Chapman bettered that -- by nearly 40 percent -- when he inked a five-year, $86 million deal to hook back up with the Yankees. Then there’s fellow free agent Kenley Jansen, who’s expected to score a deal similar to Chapman’s. All of which raises the question: If the Orioles were willing to trade Britton, just how much could they get in return?
As good as Melancon, Miller and Chapman are -- and they’re three of the best in the biz -- Britton is even better. In 2016, he was a perfect 47-for-47 in save opportunities and his 0.54 ERA was the lowest ever for a reliever (min. 50 innings). He finished fourth in the Cy Young balloting and received almost as many first-place votes as eventual winner Rick Porcello. This is nothing new for Britton. Since taking over as Baltimore’s closer on May 15, 2014, his 120 saves are second only to Melancon, and his 1.44 ERA trails only Wade Davis. In other words, he’s been good. Really, really good. As if that weren’t enough, he’s relatively low-mileage: At just 28 years old, he’s younger than Miller (31), Melancon (31) and Jansen (29). All of which is to say, the Orioles could get a gargantuan return if they’re willing to trade Britton. The operative word there is "if."
“There's always interest in your best players,” said general manager Dan Duquette last week at baseball’s winter meetings, “but I don't really talk about our best players in trade talks because people take that the wrong way. They don't take it the way it's intended to be, and that is, we like this player on our team, and we're putting our team together with them on the team. We're putting our team together around our closer and our best everyday ballplayer.”
If you’re scoring at home, the best everyday ballplayer that Duquette references would be third baseman Manny Machado, and the closer in question would be Britton. And by the sound of things, neither is going anywhere anytime soon. Holding onto Machado is inarguable because, well, he’s the best player on the Orioles, one of the best in baseball, and it’s impossible to imagine the O’s contending without him. Britton, however, is a different story.
As dominant as Britton has been -- and whether the Orioles and their fans care to admit it -- he’s replaceable. No knock on Britton, but history has proven that today’s closer is arguably the most expendable commodity in baseball: Each of the past five World Series winners has had a different closer at the end of the season than they did at the beginning. Beyond that, the Birds' bullpen -- which led the American League in ERA last season -- is stacked with filth-bringers like Brad Brach, Mychal Givens and Darren O'Day. These are guys who would have a legit shot at being the closer on plenty of teams around the league and who could step up and do the job for Baltimore if Britton suddenly disappeared. Would they be as lights-out as Britton has been? Hell no. Would the rest of the O’s relievers feel the trickle-down effect of losing Britton? You bet, especially with a lackluster starting rotation that’s known for going shallow into games. Still, given the strength of Buck Showalter’s bullpen and given the haul that Britton could fetch, dealing him has to be a consideration.
“I’d at least explore it,” says one National League executive. “They’d get a pretty nice return. Probably in [Andrew Miller’s] range of value.”
To recap, when the Yankees dealt Miller in July, they received four prospects from the Indians, two of whom were among the top 100 prospects in baseball (OF Clint Frazier and P Justus Sheffield). According to ESPN front office Insider Jim Bowden, Britton would bring back even more value: “Huge return. The Miller and Chapman returns, plus one.”
Again, if you’re keeping score at home, that’s three top-100 prospects. For a farm-famished franchise like the Orioles that had just one player in Baseball America’s 2016 midseason rankings (catcher Chance Sisco, No. 85), that’s some serious collateral -- especially when you consider that Britton, Machado, Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy (not to mention Showalter and Duquette) all have contracts that expire following the 2018 season. Translation? Selling high on Britton could help pry open Baltimore’s window -- one that seems ready to slam shut -- for a few more years. And if you believe that the Birds’ current roster contains at least one closer-in-waiting, it might not cost them the chance to contend in the near term.
Of course, the one huge caveat here is that the trade market for Britton -- for any closer, really -- doesn’t go away once the season starts. In fact, you could argue that as the trade deadline approaches, the market gets even more inflated thanks to the inevitable presence of contending teams that are desperate for bullpen help (see: Cubs, Chicago). So if the overachieving Orioles decide to play down to their projections for once (FanGraphs has them pegged for 76 wins), and if they find themselves out of contention in late July, then who knows -- maybe they’ll actually consider trading the best closer in baseball.