The Yankees acquired Zack Britton in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles on July 24, 2018. Two days later, he made his first appearance in pinstripes, and soon became a mainstay in the bullpen and a leading voice in the clubhouse.
Over the past two and a half seasons, Britton has logged a 2.14 earned run average over 111 appearances. Only four other qualified relievers in the major leagues have a lower E.R.A. in that span. And on the Yankees, a team that has dealt with numerous injuries over the years, Britton has been their best and most reliable reliever since his arrival.
His leadership and his dependability made Tuesday a hard day for the Yankees, as the team announced that Britton, a left-hander, would soon undergo arthroscopic surgery in New York to remove a bone chip from his throwing elbow. Although no timetable was provided for Britton’s return, similar injuries have cost pitchers two or three months.
Before Britton, 33, experienced stiffness after a recent bullpen session at the Yankees’ facility in Tampa, Fla. and tests discovered the source, he was already dealing with the aftereffects of another ailment: Covid-19.
“It’s been a pretty frustrating couple of weeks,” he said in a video call with reporters on Wednesday.
Britton, who resides in Austin, Tex. in the off-season, said he thinks he may have been infected at the hospital while his wife was giving birth to their fourth child. He said the disease knocked him out for about 10 days in January, he lost 18 pounds and it ultimately cost him about three to four weeks of throwing because of the lingering impact on his stamina while working out.
The Yankees had been taking it slow in spring training with Britton, who said he had been recently feeling more like himself. Already cognizant of the seriousness of the virus, Britton said his recent bout was a reminder that even a healthy person can still be affected for months.
“The weight still hasn’t come all the way back,” Britton said. “We’re a few months out and I’m still finding my way back from it.”
During the six-month marathon of the regular season, missing the first month or two isn’t terrible, particularly when the Yankees are talented enough on paper to reach the playoffs without Britton. Their sights are set on postseason glory, not on April or May dominance. But losing the best option out of the bullpen, even for a bit, from a unit that has been a team strength over the years, is still a blow.
“If this was during the season, I’m not sure surgery would be the decision,” Britton said. But because it was spring training, Britton said doctors advised that surgery was the best way to pitch again this season at a high level for the Yankees.
Since 2015, Yankees’ bullpens have been among the most valuable in the major leagues and helped them withstand injuries elsewhere on the roster.. But during the pandemic-shortened 60-game 2020 season, the relief corps regressed.
Britton, though, stood tall, posting a 1.89 E.R.A. over 20 games and recording eight saves while filling in for Aroldis Chapman early on. And in the clubhouse during a season unlike any other, Britton took on an even larger role as the team’s players’ union representative.
He organized and communicated with his teammates as the union negotiated with owners over months about the start of the season. He served as a liaison between the front office and the clubhouse on a range of matters, from the health and safety protocols to postponements. Twice last season, the Yankees had their schedule upended because of positive cases on other teams and had to scramble to fit in games or practices.
“He was fantastic in every way, shape or form in terms of performance, in terms of the leadership he provided,” General Manager Brian Cashman said after the postseason.
Over the off-season, the Yankees triggered an option in Britton’s contract that turned the three-year, $39 million pact they signed him to before the 2019 season into a four-year, $53 million deal.
Also over the winter, the Yankees ace Gerrit Cole and Britton were elected by their peers to a leading players’ union group, the executive subcommittee — a key position ahead of what are expected to be contentious negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and its players.
Last month, as spring training was beginning, Britton’s leadership came to the forefront when he spoke frankly about his teammate Domingo German returning from an 81-game suspension for domestic violence. He gave a brutally honest view of his feelings about the situation — “Sometimes you don’t get to control who your teammates are” — which forced German and the Yankees to rethink his reintegration into the team.
Asked on Wednesday about the reaction to his comments, Britton didn’t want to add much beyond saying, “Things have happened behind the scenes that needed to happen.”
While Britton works his way back to the mound, the Yankees will have to lean more on Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Jonathan Loaisiga and Chapman. When they traded Adam Ottavino to their rival, the Boston Red Sox, over the winter, the Yankees used those savings to help sign the right-handed sidearmer Darren O’Day and the left-hander Justin Wilson, both stout relievers with long track records. But to round out their bullpen the Yankees may be leaning on less proven options like Nick Nelson, Michael King, Kyle Barraclough, Lucas Luetge or others.
Relievers are important early in a season when starters aren’t yet conditioned to pitch deep into games every fifth day. But they could be even more critical this season: Pitchers didn’t amass their usual workloads last season and will be asked to ramp up to normal this year, a jump in innings that could lead to more injuries.
Yankees Manager Aaron Boone has said the Yankees will be creative early on, which could include using a six-man rotation. Britton’s absence will put even more pressure on Boone’s creativity.
“It’s certainly a blow,” Boone said of Britton’s injury, but adding later, “In a weird season, maybe in a way, this could be something that allows him to stay fresher throughout the season.”