Keys' Britton Fueled By Success Of Other Young Arms

Orioles Minor League Spotlight

August 18, 2009|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,dan.connolly@baltsun.com

This was Zach Britton's organization before it was Brian Matusz's or Chris Tillman's or Jake Arrieta's.

The Orioles' "Big Three" didn't join the franchise until after Britton was picked in the third round (85th overall) of the 2006 amateur draft out of Weatherford (Texas) High.

In the club's past nine drafts, the only high school pitchers the Orioles have selected higher than Britton were this year's top pick Matt Hobgood (fifth overall) and Adam Loewen (fourth overall) in 2002.

Now that Britton, a 21-year-old left-hander, is establishing himself as one of the organization's best, the man who signed him for $435,000 isn't surprised.

"It was more about projection with Zach," Orioles amateur scouting director Joe Jordan said. "His makeup is off the charts, and he's as businesslike as anyone we have signed since I have been here. He was one of my favorites, always has been. He has done well, and I couldn't be more pleased."

In his fourth minor league season, Britton is having his best campaign. He is 8-6 with a 2.71 ERA in 22 games for Single-A Frederick. He has struck out 114 batters and walked 50 in 126 1/3 innings. He's third in the Carolina League in ERA and second in strikeouts.

With an above-average sinker that has gotten heavier as the season has progressed, his numbers are improving as other young pitchers are getting tired. Although he has battled a hip flexor recently , Britton hasn't allowed more than three runs in any of his past six starts, posting a 2.61 ERA (11 earned runs in 38 innings) in those games.

"He's got that good hard sinker and when he throws strikes and pitches to contact, he gets outs early in the count and that sinker is real hard to hit," said David Stockstill, the Orioles' director of player development.

As Britton has gotten older and stronger, he has added a few miles per hour to his fastball, which he throws from 92 to 94. His sinker sits in the high 80s, and he is developing an effective slider and a changeup.

"Those are pitches that are starting to come around now, and I think that's starting to show," Britton said.

If all goes according to plan, Britton will start 2010 at Double-A Bowie. He has moved up one rung in each of his four years with the organization.

But his goal is much higher. He has forged relationships with some of the club's younger pitchers, such as Matusz, Arrieta, Jason Berken and David Hernandez. And the success they have had has only fueled his competitiveness.

"It drives me to work on what I need to work on and really focus," Britton said. "Playing with Matusz and learning a lot from him and watching him play against High-A hitters, and now I see him in the big leagues, it's amazing. And just knowing that he can be successful at this level, it just gives me some confidence, too."

Britton jumped from 21st to 12th on Baseball America's ranking of Orioles prospects and likely will be in the top 10 in 2010.

Britton's catcher at Frederick thinks the lefty should be mentioned along with the organization's other prized prospects.

"Without a doubt," said Keys catcher Caleb Joseph. "I like it for him, though. Being the sleeper, he can just kind of move up and before you know it he's at Camden Yards and everybody's like, 'Who is this guy?' "

What sets Britton apart, Joseph said, is his attitude.

Britton's laid-back and easygoing off the field, but, according to Stockstill, on the mound, "he can be pretty mean."

It's that attitude, combined with a sinker that might be the best pitch in the Orioles' minor league system, which could earn him a big league promotion as early as next season.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he starts at Double-A next year and goes straight up, skipping Triple-A," Joseph said. "That's how dominant he is going to be."

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