Eyeing O's rotation, Britton waits his turn

Highly touted prospect's goal is to be in Baltimore by end of 2010

March 23, 2010|By Dan Connolly | dan.connolly@baltsun.com

SARASOTA, Fla. — Zach Britton's not going to lie.

He wasn't happy this winter when he learned he would not be joining the Orioles' major league camp but instead would be part of the Double-A group relegated to the back fields of the Ed Smith Stadium complex.

"I was definitely disappointed," said the 22-year-old left-hander who was High-A Carolina League Pitcher of the Year in 2009. "I feel like nothing really has come easy to me since I have been in pro ball. I guess it is just another thing."

This offseason, Britton, a third-round round pick in 2006, assumed he was a shoo-in to join his fellow young pitching buddies, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta, in big league camp. After all, he skyrocketed from 12th to third on Baseball America's Orioles prospect list, behind only Matusz and third baseman Josh Bell and ahead of, among others, Arrieta and Brandon Erbe.

Then the Orioles' brass broke the news: Britton was on the list to be added to big league camp, but the club offered late invitations to a few veteran relievers and they didn't want him limited to an inning here or there in a crowded field.

"I think I was a little bit too wrapped up in thinking I am going to go and I've got it in the bag -- not necessarily that, but that kind of thinking," Britton said. "But this is just another reason why I've got to work that much harder if I want to get the opportunity. I know it is not going to be given to me. They expect me to earn it. I think I take it more as motivation than anything negative."

An organization never wants to upset its prized prospects, but no one was too worried about Britton's psyche. He's a confident guy, a smart guy, and player development director David Stockstill expected both Britton's initial reaction and his commitment to make the best of his situation.

"He was very disappointed, and I can certainly understand that. I'd probably be disappointed if he weren't," Stockstill said. "He wanted very badly to go, and there was no way I could say that he was wrong in that thinking. But the best plan for him was to go in the minor league camp and have him ready for a whole season."

The placement came with caveats: He likely will get a chance to pitch in a major league game before spring ends, and, because the camps are finally together as opposed to being three hours apart in the past, Britton can still have dinner with guys like Matusz and Tillman and mingle with the big leaguers in the complex's shared gym.

"You just feel like you are part of something here," Britton said. "The atmosphere here is so much better."

Britton has been in the organization longer than Matusz, Arrieta and Tillman, but he has been led along a much slower path, advancing one level each season. He has gotten better each year, culminating with a 9-6 record and a 2.70 ERA in 140 innings for the Frederick Keys in 2009.

"They have done a great job of developing me as a player, and I give a lot of credit to them for making me the player I am today and hopefully a better player as the years go by," Britton said. "I am really a product of the Orioles' system."

Each year, minor league pitching coordinator Dave Schmidt introduces a new wrinkle into Britton's repertoire and a new development plan. And each year, Britton gets a little better. He honed a slider in 2009 and now is working on a changeup, a softer pitch to go with his low-90s fastball and an above-average sinker that is his specialty.

"He is a lot farther along [with the changeup] than he thinks he is with it," Schmidt said. "It's a pretty good pitch for him right now; he just needs to have confidence in it and throw it and let it work for him."

Confidence has been a key for Britton. Last year at Frederick, he pitched half a season with Matusz, a fellow left-hander with four polished pitches. Matusz served as both inspiration and barometer. Seeing Matusz get to the majors was an inspiration to Britton, but it also showed he wasn't that far away.

"It has kind of proven to me that I can pitch on that level with these guys -- especially playing with Brian last year," Britton said. "He is obviously in a different league, but it's being able to compete with a guy like that and to see what a good big leaguer is."

Matusz made it to the Orioles in his first pro season; Britton is now in year five in the minors. But this one could be different. His goal is to be in Baltimore by the end of the year. Schmidt says that should be his focus. And Stockstill said the slow and steady march through the minors often ends in Double-A Bowie, where Britton will start this year.

"It's very important for our prospects to be ready once they get to Double-A, because they may be in the big leagues the next day," Stockstill said. "We're very deliberate in getting them to Double-A, but once they are at Double-A, now anything is possible."

Whenever he gets to the majors, he'll look different than the scrawny kid amateur scouting director Joe Jordan drafted in 2006. He put on 10 pounds this offseason after an Orioles nutrition program and is 6 feet 3 and 195 pounds.

The talent and A-plus makeup remains. Therefore, Jordan said, Britton should be mentioned with the young guns even if he doesn't have a locker next to them in March.

"His stuff fits with those good guys," Jordan said. "We graduated two or three of those cavalry members to the big leagues last year. They have to be replaced, and we think Zach is going to be one of those guys to step up."

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