Zach Britton, Braves could be fit - depending upon price

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

The Braves are back in a pennant race, and it’s no secret they’re looking for bullpen help.

Rumors will rev up with the trade deadline 11 days away. The Orioles already sold the market’s most coveted asset, star Manny Machado, sending him to the Dodgers for five players, only one of whom was a top 100 prospect.

That shouldn’t end the Orioles’ selling. They could soon opt to move closer Zach Britton, among the more valuable pieces available this July.

Britton, 30, has been one of the game’s better closers since 2014. He saved 37, 36 and 47 games from 2014-16 for a contender. He has the resume, including playoff experience, that teams like the Braves should desire.

The final season of that run, Britton owned a 0.54 ERA and was considered by some as a legitimate American League Cy Young candidate. His Orioles lost the AL wild-card game in Toronto, with manager Buck Showalter drawing criticism for not using Britton late in a 5-2 11-inning loss.

That was then, this is now. Britton hasn’t replicated that dominance. He missed much of last season with forearm injuries and didn’t even pitch until June this year because of an Achilles injury.

He pitched nine times in the month of his return, notching a 6.23 ERA, showing inconsistent command and red flags that led many to believe his value was diminished.

Britton’s looked more like his old self lately, pitching six scoreless July outings, allowing three hits, striking out six and walking two. Opponents are hitting .158 off him in that span, with their OPS dropping from .830 in June to .449 in July.

Overall, the lefty has held right-handers to a .200 average in 35 plate appearances, and left-handers to a .250 mark (25 plate appearances).

The amount of reliable arms in a bullpen can make or break an October run. This team’s bullpen, as currently constructed, is an arm or two short. That probably isn’t news to anyone.

As such, the Braves would be wise to take a risk on Britton, depending on the price. The two already have been linked by multiple reports, and Britton is on a crowded list of potential reliever adds.

Britton’s groundball rate is around 62.2 percent, much lower than his career norms, but trending upward in his latest string of quality outings. His sinker velocity and its effectiveness has begun correcting itself the more he’s pitched.

The Braves largely are where they are thanks to an excellent infield defense. Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson and Johan Camargo, plus defenders with range, play perfectly into Britton’s strengths.

Arodys Vizcaino is on the disabled list again, and despite converting 15 of 17 save chances, the Braves would benefit from adding another option. A.J. Minter and Dan Winkler have both worked the ninth, but their performances have left room for improvement.

Adding a pitcher such as Britton could help the rest of the unit fall into place. Vizcaino, Minter and Winkler wouldn’t routinely handle the ninth, giving manager Brian Snitker an abundance of options for the late innings.

Britton would also add another lefty to the bullpen, joining Sam Freeman, Jesse Biddle and Minter. But he would present the best option in high-leverage situations against the Cubs, Brewers and Dodgers of the world in the postseason.

There are reasons to be hesitant: Britton’s recent stretch might not be indicative of a turnaround. His injury history the past two seasons should understandably create reluctance.

What the Braves saw up close last month wasn’t great. He was tagged for four runs on five hits, throwing 16 pitches and getting only one out.

The contract situation could complicate trade talks. Britton is a free agent at year’s end, and teams are less enthusiastic to pay a premium for a rental. Given Britton’s recent history, it would be unrealistic for the Orioles to expect a bounty in return.

Still, Baltimore could induce a bidding war. The Yankees, Astros and Phillies, contenders with deep farm systems, have been connected to Britton, among others. The Braves would prefer a controllable player, but this could be the best upside play on the board after Brad Hand was dealt to Cleveland.

Britton has a little under $5 million remaining on his deal, which might be a roadblock for some teams.

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos has indicated money shouldn’t impede an acquisition for his team, though some remain skeptical, expecting the Braves to explore lower-salaried alternatives such as John Axford or Kirby Yates, the latter of whom is controllable through 2020.

At the right price, the Braves should dip into their stash of prospects and take a chance on Britton. They have pitching depth of which most teams could only dream, and the Orioles desperately need an influx of arms.

If it fails, the Braves didn’t sell the farm and they can let Britton walk. If it succeeds, they’ve boosted their postseason odds and have the funds available to re-sign him. The franchise was expected to make a run at bullpen help anyway, and getting a look at Britton beforehand wouldn’t hurt.

Every contender takes risks with the postseason in mind. The Braves aren’t in, say, Houston’s position where the primary concern is postseason matchups, not just getting there, but Britton could be a significant contributor to both causes.