CLEARWATER, Fla. — — He was only 19 at the time, so you can excuse Zach Britton for the youthful exuberance.
At Camden Yards to sign his first professional contract as a newly minted high school graduate, Britton told reporters that he was pleased that it was the Orioles who drafted him because, as he observed that day, "They need pitching."
That was 4½ years ago, and Britton, a third-round pick in 2006, has yet to crack the big leagues.
Just another failed Orioles' prospect? Hardly.
The 23-year-old is the organization's top pitching prospect, and the best left-handed pitching prospect in the minor leagues, says Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis. He's done it the hard way, stopping at each minor league level to get to the point where he is now: on the threshold of a spot in the Orioles' rotation.
"I think, to me, whenever I do make it, it's going to be a lot more rewarding than maybe somebody who kind of flew through the system just because I had to go through every little step," Britton said. "I don't have a lot of patience. I think last year, especially at the end of the year, I was wondering whether I was going to go up there in September. I never really believed when people said that it's out of your control. I thought, 'No, it's in my control. I can do it.' But to an extent, it is out of my control, I guess. I kind of learned that in September when I didn't get the opportunity to come up."
Britton has pitched for Bluefield, Aberdeen, Delmarva, Frederick, Bowie and Norfolk. On Wednesday, he got his first opportunity to pitch for the Orioles, albeit in a Grapefruit League game against the Philadelphia Phillies and in relief of Chris Tillman.
A "nervous as hell" Britton threw two scoreless innings in the Orioles' 6-5 victory at Bright House Field, but it wasn't easy. He allowed two hits, threw a wild pitch and needed two different mound visits from catcher Jake Fox to settle down.
"I have no idea what happened out there today," acknowledged Britton, who said two days earlier that he had never gotten nervous in any game. "I was pretty nervous. Even in the pen, I felt it. But it was exciting. It was good to get it out of the way. I don't even know what I can take out of it I was so nervous. It was all nerves out there. I'm just happy it went well."
It won't get any easier as his next opportunity to pitch will likely come as a starter. The Orioles have split-squad games Monday, Britton's next turn. His opposition that day will be either the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees.
"I'm sure there will be some anxiety with Zach early, maybe not," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "There's one way to find out, and that's to run him out there. What are you going to do, have him on the back field? I'd rather run him out there and see what happens. You can't dictate those situations when the season starts. You're trying to simulate what he's going to be faced with in the season."
Even with projected starter Justin Duchscherer ailing, Britton probably remains a longshot to make the club. The Orioles want to be cautious with their prized youngster, and they have more experienced options for the rotation.
Still, Showalter said Wednesday that he was impressed with Britton, who even with his nerves wreaking havoc on his control, induced four ground balls and an infield pop-up. He also threw a 3-2 fastball right by the vaunted Ryan Howard with a man on third and one out in the third inning.
The outing only reaffirmed Britton's belief that his stuff, including his sinking fastball, will play in the big leagues. He felt that way last season too when he went 7-3 with a 2.48 ERA in 15 outings for Double-A Bowie, and then 3-4 with a 2.98 ERA in 12 starts after his promotion to Triple-A Norfolk. There was plenty of speculation that Britton would be summoned to the big leagues when rosters expanded last September, but that call never came.
"It still stings a little. I wasn't very happy obviously and I think I let some people know," said Britton, the Orioles' minor league pitcher of the year in 2010, and the 28th best prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America. "It was their decision to make, not mine. But I understand the situation and you have to respect it. That's kind of what I took from that. I had a good season and let's go into the offseason and get ready for spring training.
"This spring, I'm not necessarily focused on going out and throwing perfect innings because I know at the end of the day, it may not even matter. I think they are probably leaning a certain way anyway, but for me, it's still about getting my work in and getting ready for the season. I'm not trying to go out there and do too much. I'll try to be as patient as I can and just focus on pitching well, whether it's in Baltimore in Norfolk."