John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The theme of this Yankees' offseason is finding ways to close the gap on the Red Sox, and there's no denying the rivals to the north established a clear level of superiority last season.
Yet it's plausible to make the case that, at least for the moment, the Yankees have opened an important gap of their own over the Sox. Right now, in fact, they own a Patriots vs. Jets-like advantage in the bullpen, if I can extend the New York-Boston angle to make a point.
Re-signing Zach Britton gives the Yankees late-inning dominance and flexibility that no team in baseball can match, presuming Aroldis Chapman stays healthy and Dellin Betances has minimal control issues.
They can easily absorb the loss of David Robertson, considering the ammunition that Chad Green and Jonathan Holder (and perhaps even Tommy Kahnle) provide, as well as the potential that rookie lefty Stephen Tarpley showed last September.
And if they also add free agent Adam Ottavino, as has been speculated, it will feel like they're just loading up to further exploit an advantage over the Red Sox that could be pivotal in 2019.
Last October, of course, the Sox utilized starters Rick Porcello, David Price and Nathan Eovaldi as late-inning relievers to overcome a less-than-dominant bullpen and help win a championship, but obviously that's not a viable strategy over 162 games in the regular season.
All of which would seem to put huge pressure on Boston to bring back Craig Kimbrel, their closer who remains on the free-agent market, asking for more years and dollars than any team is willing to pay to this point.
The Sox are in a tough spot regarding Kimbrel, as they try to pare down a payroll that reached the $230 million neighborhood last season, by far the highest in baseball.
Without him, however, as well as Joe Kelly, who signed with the Dodgers, they have a lot of no-name relievers who are largely unproven, especially in the postseason.
Are they really willing to put their trust in Ryan Brasier as closer? Matt Barnes?
Kimbrel had his problems in the postseason, which may or may not have been the result of tipping his pitches, but he has proven he can handle the high-stress job of closing in Fenway Park, and at age 30 shows no signs of losing his elite velocity.
The question is whether GM Dave Dombrowski is simply following a strategy, waiting for Kimbrel's price to come down and gambling that no other team is willing to pay huge money for him.
Dombrowski took plenty of heat in Boston last winter for his patience regarding J.D. Martinez, especially after the Yankees traded for Giancarlo Stanton, yet the Sox GM played that one just right, finally signing Martinez in February when agent Scott Boras finally caved on his asking price.
This time, it could cost him if the Braves land Kimbrel. Or even the Phillies, should they lose out on both Manny Machado and Bryce Harper.
However, if the Sox were resigned to losing Kimbrel, maybe they would have signed one of the other available relievers this winter. So we'll see. At this point, there's no way the Sox could be considered favorites to win a fourth straight division title if they fail to bring their closer back.
Such was the importance of the Britton signing for the Yankees, and to a reasonable -- if unusual -- contract that binds them to the lefty for only two years, at which point they'd have to guarantee the third and fourth years of a $53 million deal or give him the right to opt out.
By then, they'll have a better feel for whether he can get back to the type of dominance that made him the best reliever in baseball for the Orioles in 2016, before a forearm/elbow injury affected his performance in 2017 and then he ruptured his Achilles tendon in an offseason workout.
He was solid for the Yankees after they acquired him at trade deadline, but iffy at times late in the season, losing the command of his killer sinker at times. To that point, it's worth remembering that Britton didn't start his season until June after rehabbing from the Achilles injury.
"He couldn't always throw that two-seamer where he wanted to, and he had been automatic with that pitch," a major-league scout said on Monday. "His velocity was also down a little at times, and I have to think there was some cause-and-effect in coming back from such a major injury.
"I would think he'll be closer to his old form after another offseason to strengthen the leg and then a full season of pitching. If he's right, that's a devastating combination, with Betances and Chapman, at the back end of that bullpen."
Sure, you can argue Boston's biggest advantage was the clutch nature of its offense that produced a historic postseason in terms of two-out hits, but the Yankees privately believe it would be very hard for their rivals to duplicate that magic should both teams get there again in 2019.
In other words, the Yankees will gladly take their chances come next October. And they believe their bullpen advantage improves those chances.