In 2016, Zach Britton had a year for the ages. It was, by all accounts, the best single-season performance by a reliever in major-league history. He placed fourth in American League Cy Young voting and 11th — 11th! — in MVP voting en route to being recognized as the AL’s best at his position.
Then, injuries arose. Left forearm tightness limited Britton to only 38 games in 2017, and despite significant interest from contending teams, the Baltimore Orioles kept their closer. In the winter, right before Christmas, the southpaw ruptured his Achilles tendon, which effectively kept him out all the way until early June.
On Tuesday night, only 16 games into his long-awaited return to the mound, the rebuilding Orioles traded Britton to the New York Yankees for three prospects. The return is being lauded by pundits, mainly due to Britton’s contractual status (he’s a rental for New York) and because, you know, he’s a reliever coming off two injuries. With Britton off the market, it provides another seller from the AL with a distinct advantage. Enter the Toronto Blue Jays and Roberto Osuna.
With trades beginning to materialize, eyes are on the Blue Jays, a club with a broad mix of players on expiring deals and club control. Left-handed starter J.A. Happ is the front office’s best chance at acquiring high-end talent but Osuna, who was arrested and charged with domestic assault and later suspended for 75 games, as a result, is also reportedly being shopped by the team. If you compare Osuna to Brad Hand, Jeurys Familia, and Brad Hand; two other relievers traded recently, it starts to get interesting.
Osuna pitched 207 2/3 innings in this span compared to Hand (205), Familia (180), and Britton (170)
All four have performed as some of the league’s best closers in each of the past few seasons. The table above is used as an example to show that Osuna, at only 23 years old, has matched — or at least been in the same ballpark as Britton — and surpassed Familia and Hand, in regards to production.
Also in the Blue Jays’ favor is Osuna’s team-friendly contract. The arbitration-eligible right-hander, who was set to earn $5.3 million this season (he has surrendered $2.4 million with the suspension), is under team control until 2021, and would only be 26 by then. Britton ($12 million) and Familia ($7.9 million) are rentals, and are likely to both receive raises this winter through free agency.
And then there’s Hand, who, unlike Britton and Familia, is under contract until 2020 for $18.6 million and carries a $10 million club option in 2021. That’s important because the southpaw, along with submarine specialist Adam Cimber, was recently packaged by San Diego to Cleveland for Francisco Mejia; a highly regarded offensive player and baseball’s best catching prospect. The previous table is somewhat deceiving because Hand’s cumulative 2015 season is an aberration compared to what he’s accomplished ever since. In short, since 2016, Hand has been a top 15 reliever in terms of WAR, and just who happens to be ahead of him? Osuna, of course.
Factoring all of that into the equation, the Blue Jays should be in a good position, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a trade will materialize.
From a public relations and ethical perspective, the Blue Jays holding onto Osuna for the foreseeable future would be bad optics. General manager Ross Atkins has come out publicly to say that Osuna will be the closer when he returns, but it’s unclear if he’s trying to gain leverage, or if that is, in fact, the organization’s plan moving forward. On the one hand, the Blue Jays could keep Osuna for the rest of the season in hopes that he raises or maintains his value, and then trade him in the winter. On the other hand, teams know what Osuna is as a closer and reliever, so if a club were to deal for him now (Osuna is in fact eligible to be traded as he serves his suspension) and presented the Blue Jays with a package they can’t refuse, it’s hard to believe Atkins would pass up on the opportunity. Unlike players suspended due to a drug-related offense, Osuna is also eligible to pitch in the postseason, which could give contending teams more incentive to trade for a player of his caliber.
The return for Britton should be similar to what the Blue Jays aim for with Osuna now, or down the road. A deal highlighted by three prospects shouldn’t be out of the question. In recent years, we have seen organizations trade for players shortly after they served a suspension. Three-and-a-half months after Aroldis Chapman served a 30-game suspension for the “use of a firearm and its effect on his partner,” a crime in which he was not charged, the Chicago Cubs acquired the left-hander from the Yankees in a four-player deal that included top prospect, Gleyber Torres.
On October 31, 2016, a few days before Chapman and the Cubs won the World Series, Familia, then with the Mets, was arrested on a domestic violence charge in New Jersey. The assault charge was later dropped, and Familia went on to serve a 15-game suspension. He’s now a member of the Athletics.
With the Blue Jays shopping several players, expect to see some deals in the next few days. Almost everyone on the roster appears to be in play as the team looks ahead to 2019 and so on. Even if Osuna had avoided the off-field issues and suspension, it’s difficult to imagine the Blue Jays wouldn’t gauge his value through trade in an effort to capitalize on what he’s accomplished over the years. Relievers are incredibly volatile, no matter the individual or their accomplishments. It’s proven every single year. Yes, Osuna is among baseball’s best, when he’s on the mound. Any team that trades for him would be getting a young arm capable of effectively closing down games now, and for the next few years. Even with Tyler Clippard, Seung Hwan Oh and John Axford likely to be dealt, if Osuna were to follow, replacing him shouldn’t prove to be that big of a challenge for the Blue Jays, at least in the short term (Hello, Ryan Tepera).
The Britton-to-New York-trade sent shockwaves throughout the league, and if there’s one team it helps, it’s the Blue Jays.