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Contract flexibility a key to Zach Britton's return to the Yankees

Yankees relief pitcher Zach Britton delivers against the

Yankees relief pitcher Zach Britton delivers against the Red Sox in the ninth inning of a game at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 18, 2018. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It was a contract born of creativity, and, to hear Zach Britton tell it, the result of a give-and-take between the most powerful agent in baseball (Scott Boras) and one of the most powerful general managers (Brian Cashman) — all in an effort to craft an agreement that gave both parties what they wanted.

Within reason, that is.

Britton, 31, who said he didn’t feel like himself all last season after returning from Achilles tendon surgery, wanted another crack at free agency in the future, when he presumably will be healthy and still young enough to produce. The Yankees didn’t want to be tied down to a long-term contract, but they still wanted enough control over the process to retain Britton if they so desired.

“Scott got really creative,” Britton said Friday. “Cashman especially and Scott, they jumped on the idea when they started talking about the opt-in and opt-out . . . I didn’t feel like I was close to myself last year and I wanted to get stronger again and be further removed from surgery . . . and have the option to explore free agency again.”

So that’s how it happened – a quirky little contract that Britton had to break down when speaking to reporters via conference call Friday.

It’s technically for three years and worth $39 million, but after the second year, the Yankees must decide whether to exercise a fourth-year option for an extra $14 million. If they decline to give him the fourth year, they can lose Britton right then and there: He can elect to declare free agency after two years at age 33.

Britton is a two-time All-Star and came in fourth in the American League Cy Young Award voting in 2016, when he had 47 saves and a 0.54 ERA. A mediocre starting pitcher during his first three seasons for the Orioles, he has  142 saves and a 1.82 ERA in the last five years. He set an American League record by converting 60 consecutive save opportunities between October 2015 and August 2017.

It’s pretty clear why the Yankees want Britton. Even in an off year, he was productive for them, joining the team around the trade deadline and going 1-0 with three saves and a 2.88 ERA in 25 appearances. He didn’t allow an earned run in the entire month of September (9 2/3 innings).

This is even more impressive considering that Britton characterized the 2018 season as “a grind.” He missed spring training while essentially relearning how to walk and also missed most of his offseason training before that, given that he ruptured his right Achilles while sprinting during a workout in late December.

He eventually got healthy enough to pitch and returned on June 12, but he had lost weight and muscle mass and couldn’t even jump to snag a comebacker.

“At times, I felt like my lower body was detached from my upper body,” he said. “I got to a point where I could compete and start putting up some zeros and start to have some better outings, but command was always something that I struggled with . . . because of lack of strength in my lower half.”

Now, he said, he’s about 90 percent and hopes that spring training will further serve to strengthen him. If that goes as planned, he’ll bolster the back end of a bullpen that already is plenty intimidating with Dellin Betances and closer Aroldis Chapman.

The Yankees, he said, were one of the few teams with which he would have considered taking a non-closer role. He liked it here in his brief tenure and thinks they have the ability to win for many years to come.

“We kept in contact with the Yankees immediately once free agency started,'' he said. "I think the fact that I had been a closer and I knew that I could do at a high level, I felt it wasn’t something I needed to prove myself in, or a role I needed to prove myself in. I wanted to go back to a team that was going to win year in and year out, and if the opportunity wasn’t there for me to close, that was kind of OK.”

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