It's such a stone-cold lock that Zach Britton is going to get traded that he might have already made his final appearance in an Orioles uniform, when he tossed a scoreless inning in Toronto on Saturday. Given his recent injury history, there's a strong case to be made that the O's shouldn't risk exposing him before they trade him.
Of course, it's also Britton's recent injury history -- left forearm problems in 2017, and an offseason Achilles tear that delayed his '18 debut until June 12 -- that might limit the return the Orioles can expect to get. Britton isn't quite the stud who managed to get himself into the American League Cy Young Award conversation in 2016, but on name value alone, he's likely to be the most prominent reliever still out there traded before the Deadline.
So that leaves us two questions: What kind of pitcher is Britton right now? And which contenders are most likely to go after him?
Zach's on the upswing
On the surface, this looks like bad news: Britton's 3.45 ERA is his highest since he transitioned to the bullpen full time in 2014. His 20.6 percent strikeout rate is nothing like the 31 percent he had in '15 or the 29 percent he had in '16. Britton's 16 percent walk rate is his highest ever, and it's gone up every year since it was 5 percent in '15.
Britton's velocity, too, has gone the wrong way. While he operated in the 92-93 mph range as a starter earlier in his career, he was consistently throwing 95-97 mph in his relief glory days. So far this year, Britton's average is 94.4 mph, a considerable drop.
But smart teams are going to look below the surface, and they're going to find a lot to like. To start with, as we noted above, Britton is coming off two serious injuries. It's not at all unexpected that he'd slowly work his way back. What you want to see is progress, and we are seeing that, especially in terms of velocity. As Britton's game-by-game chart shows, the heat is coming back, and interested teams will be trying to guess what they'll get going forward, not worrying about what he did while shaking the rust off.
The production has improved, too. (Let's be clear here that Britton has only faced 63 hitters all year, so the samples are small, but we're at least dealing with a player who has an established history of success.)
In June, Britton allowed six runs in eight innings (6.23 ERA), striking out 18 percent of hitters and getting 54 percent grounders.
In July, Britton has allowed zero runs in seven innings (0.00 ERA), striking out 25 percent of hitters and getting 80 percent grounders.
Again, we're not talking about a ton of innings here, and Britton is still walking too many, but that looks a lot more like the Britton we remember, and that's what teams are going to be trading for.
So who's going to do it? Let's assume that Cleveland is out, having already made a big bullpen splash for Brad Hand and Adam Cimber. It won't surprise you that most every other contender is considering the idea; let's rank them from the best fit down.
It might surprise you to know that Houston's bullpen is far better than you think it is. The Astros have baseball's second-best ERA, second-highest strikeout percentage, lowest walk rate and opposing teams have the second-lowest average. This is a good, talented, deep group. But you know the issue already, of course. Ken Giles struggled badly enough in last year's World Series that it was Charlie Morton who closed out Game 7. He ran into enough issues this year that he's currently pitching for Fresno in Triple-A.
Plus, we know that the Astros came very close to acquiring Britton last year, before Orioles management quashed the deal -- and this might be the only place where Houston can really focus to improve baseball's most complete roster. This is still the best fit.
Britton wouldn't close here, because Kenley Jansen has turned it around since his rough start, but Los Angeles could badly use relief depth. Right now, the Dodgers' bullpen includes names you've never heard of such as Dylan Floro, Erik Goeddel, Zac Rosscup, Caleb Ferguson and JT Chargois; some of those guys have been surprisingly good, but there's obviously room for improvement here. It doesn't hurt that the Manny Machado trade gave both the Dodgers and O's plenty of familiarity with potential trade options.
Besides, Baltimore could offer something else of value here, too. Now that the Dodgers have Machado, they're going to have too many hitters for not enough spots once Justin Turner and Yasiel Puig get healthy, and they have incentive to stay below the luxury-tax limit. If the Orioles really wanted to kick-start their rebuild, they would be willing to take back the disappointing Logan Forsythe (.217/.279/.304) and the remainder of his $9 million this year in exchange for a higher prospect return.
Chicago's got a problem, and it's in the rotation, where Tyler Chatwood can't throw strikes, Yu Darvish isn't healthy, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana have been inconsistent, and Jon Lester's sparkling first half looks like a prime candidate for a second-half splashdown. Unfortunately for the Cubs, the available rotation depth isn't exactly appealing. J.A. Happ and Nathan Eovaldi might be nice adds, but they're not exactly difference makers, and Cole Hamels is a shell of the star he once was.
That being the case, it might make more sense to bolster a bullpen that has been pretty good (3.30 ERA, fourth best), albeit bolstered by a great Cubs defense and with a far-too-high walk rate (11.3 percent, worst in baseball). Once Brandon Morrow is healthy, a group with him, Britton, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr. and Justin Wilson could be a formidable postseason unit.
Let's take everything we just said about the Cubs, and apply it to the Brewers, who just lost Brent Suter until probably 2020 due to Tommy John surgery and still don't know whether they'll get Jimmy Nelson this year -- or what they'll get from him if he does return. They'd love a starter to reinforce a group currently fronted by Jhoulys Chacin, Chase Anderson and Junior Guerra. Unless Milwaukee can unexpectedly get Chris Archer or Jacob deGrom, that starter might not exist. Just like with the Cubs, the idea here would be to build a superpen, adding Britton to Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, Corey Knebel and others.
The appeal here is obvious, and not just because Britton, at his best, would be a value add to any bullpen. Boston simply doesn't have a reliable lefty reliever, with 27-year-old rookie Brian Johnson filling the role so far. He's been OK, but he's not Britton, and neither is Bobby Poyner.
Added bonus: It would keep Britton away from the Yankees. Speaking of which…
… you wouldn't think that the Yankees need a bullpen upgrade, and they really don't. When we said above that the Astros had the second-best bullpen in a variety of stats, that's almost always "second to the Yankees." They don't really need a reliever. But the Yanks do need a starter, and again there's few good starters available, and they saw firsthand last year what a deep, dominant bullpen can do. Besides, New York could actually find use for a lefty; Aroldis Chapman has been dealing with a sore knee, and Chasen Shreve has been inconsistent, putting up a 4.25 ERA and allowing lefties to slug .574 off him -- though he's been very good in July.
Arizona's bullpen is probably better than you think it is; it's third in relief ERA (2.97), though, it's fifth lowest in strikeout rate. It probably helps that we know that the Diamondbacks were interested in Machado, so the O's would have some familiarity with their farm system, and their trade for J.D. Martinez last year showed that they're willing to go for it. But if Arizona does so for Britton, it might mean prioritizing the bullpen over some larger holes in its infield, where Ketel Marte, Nick Ahmed and Jake Lamb have all hit below expectations.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.