TAMPA, Fla. – It wasn’t something Zack Britton saw – or sees – as "serious."
And the lefthanded reliever, a back-end fixture in the Yankees bullpen, said had this been the regular season he might have tried to pitch through it.
But when he started feeling soreness in his left elbow after finishing a bullpen session Sunday and an ensuing MRI and CT scan ordered by the club Monday showed a bone chip, the 33-year-old, whose shoulder and arm have allowed him to be among the most durable relievers of the last half decade, chose the surgical route that will likely cost him the first three months of the season at least.
"Could I rehab through it and possibly come back, and it wouldn't impact me?" Britton said Wednesday. "There was a chance. But we like the chances better of me coming back this season and pitching at a high level if I just got it removed now. If this was during the season, I'm not sure surgery would be the decision. But the fact that it's spring training, through all the advice from multiple doctors, it seems like this is the smartest thing to do if I want to pitch at a high level this year for the team."
Britton said he is scheduled to have the surgery, which will be performed by team physician Christopher Ahmad, on Monday at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
According to the description of bone chip removal surgery on Dr. Ahmad's sports medicine website, Britton could be cleared to start throwing at the six-week mark from the surgery date, if range of motion and strength are fully restored. The website also states a return to competition typically is between 3-4 months but obviously can vary case by case.
"It's really not that serious in the scheme of things, but it needs to be taken care of," said Britton, who posted a 1.89 ERA in 20 games last season.
Aaron Boone, who even with Britton out has a deep reserve of bullpen arms from which to choose, said not necessarily a lefthander would fill Britton’s role.
"We'll take the best available guys and try to put together the best available bullpen," said Boone, who in answering another question mentioned "the second half" for a potential return. "Obviously, we still have at least a couple lefties down there in Chappy [Aroldis Chapman] and [Justin] Wilson. But whether another lefty emerges or not, don't feel it’s necessary with Zack down."
The bone chip was the second medical setback of 2021 for Britton, who went through a rough bout with COVID-19 in January, which caused him to lose 18 pounds and had him slightly behind other Yankees pitchers physically entering camp.
"I was surprised. I think I got it at the hospital when we were having our [fourth] kid, so it was even worse," Britton said. "I was not expecting to get hit that hard by COVID. It wiped me out pretty good. The weight loss was surprising. And just the aftereffects that I've been dealing with. It showed me how serious this can be, even for somebody that's healthy. I have great access to doctors. I'm very fortunate."
Britton, since being acquired by the Yankees from the Orioles in 2018, has been among the more dependable relievers. Since making his debut in pinstripes on July 26, 2018, Britton has thrown 105 1/3 innings, the second-most for any Yankees reliever after long-man and occasional spot starter Luis Cessa (123 1/3 innings).
"A long time ago, Scott Boras [Britton’s agent] told me the best attribute of a player is durability," Britton said. "Being able to be out on the field. Doesn't matter how much talent you have, if you can't make it on the field then you're not helping your team. So it's disappointing that I'm not going to be there to start the year. But this is the best way for me to get with the guys this season and pitch at a high level and make a big impact. I'm still planning on making a good amount of appearances for the club and making a big impact."