The Orioles optioned top pitching prospect Zach Britton to Triple-A Norfolk on Tuesday, a roster move that by all indications is a temporary one given the 23-year-old’s impressive spring.
The Orioles can go with four starters until April 10 by using their scheduled off-days, and the plan is to keep Britton in Triple-A until at least April 21, which is the first date he could come up and not be allotted a full year of service time. By keeping Britton in the Minors for at least 20 days, he will remain under team control for another full year, until 2017.
The 23-year-old Britton — who has allowed just three earned runs in 20 official spring innings – made his final Grapefruit League start Monday against the Tigers. He allowed Detroit two runs over six innings and has exceeded organizational expectations and frequently wowed the opposition in his first Major League camp.
“He throws hard; his ball moves a lot too,” Yankees captain Derek Jeter said after Britton tossed three scoreless innings against New York March 7. Jeter, who was very complimentary of Britton’s arsenal, had little doubt it would play at the Major League level.
“He threw me a changeup that was one of the best pitches I’ve seen all spring,” added Detroit’s Will Rhymes. “It was sinking. It was cutting. I talked to [Jake] Fox, their catcher, on second base. He said [Britton’s] pitches go all over and he doesn’t know exactly where it’s going. That’s kind of what it looked like. He made a couple pitches to me that were really, really good pitches.”
Tuesday’s decision isn’t purely financial — the O’s have no intention of leaving Britton in the Minors long enough to delay his arbitration years — but they do want to keep the heralded lefty from entering free agency a year early. President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, who has made it the organizational philosophy to grow the arms from within, said he expects Britton to be up in Baltimore within the season’s first month.
“I’d be shocked if he wasn’t,” MacPhail said. “[Britton not being here] could happen. We could be going good with what we have and he could scuffle.”
The Orioles best pitcher statistically this spring, there are things Britton –a groundball specialist — needs to improve on, most notably keeping his pitch count in check.
“This kid has got a live arm,” pitching coach Mark Connor said of Britton, who was named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year last season.
“He’s not a finished product by any stretch of the imagination. There’s some things in his delivery that I think can get better. And the secondary stuff has got to get better where he can command a changeup, command a breaking ball. But if he can locate the two fastballs he throws in the Major Leagues, he’s going to have success.”
Added MacPhail: “We tend to look at these kids and put too much of the savior tag on them. [Britton] will be good enough to be part of our five, but he’s not going to just jump to No. 1.”
Starting Britton in Triple-A, as unpopular as it may be among fans, is a fairly common occurrence around Major League Baseball. The Giants had catcher phenom Buster Posey start in Triple-A last season to get some more seasoning, and Royals third baseman of the future Mike Moustakas will start this year with Omaha and likely be up by midseason to delay future arbitration. The Mariners top pitching prospect Michael Pineda is expected to break camp, but position player Dustin Ackley will begin in Triple A, with the consensus he will be in Seattle sooner rather than later.
“Obviously it’s tough,” said Rays third baseman Evan Longoria who was a late-spring cut in 2008, despite hitting .262 with three homers and 10 RBIs, in favor of Willy Aybar. The Rays insisted the top prospect needed more work, but the move –which didn’t sit well in Tampa Bay’s clubhouse – raised questions about whether it was financially-driven. Longoria said he had no shortage of motivation in his short time at Triple-A Durham, and empathized with Britton’s situation.
“The biggest thing is understanding that you are that close, you are only half a step away from being in the big leagues” said Longoria, who was recalled for good when Aybar went on the disabled list April 12. “[And] understanding that probably everybody in the [Orioles] clubhouse knows that [Britton] should be on the team. It’s just understanding the politics of the game. When it’s time for him to come up, he’s going to be the first one to get the phone call.”
Britton, who was in Minor League camp last season, used his lack of big-league invitation as motivation, going 7-3 with a 2.48 at Double-A Bowie before being promoted to Triple-A. He finished the season 3-4 with a 2.98 ERA in 12 starts at Norfolk and was disappointed by not getting a September callup. He has maintained all spring that his only goal has been to show the Orioles what he can do, the rest –as Britton has pointed out – was out of his control.
“I’ve been through this [situation] a couple different times so I kind of know how to handle it,” Britton said. “I’m not the type of guy that’s going to go out there and complain about where I am. I’m not going to like it, but I’ll go out there and pitch because it doesn’t help me or the organization if I go down to Triple-A and pout. I’m not going to get up here any quicker. I need to go out there and get people out whether I’m in Norfolk or Baltimore.”