Britton making his case as Orioles' best young pitcher

Left-hander likely won't make Opening Day roster, but it won't be because of performance

  • Orioles starter Zach Britton pitches against the Yankees during the fourth inning of a spring training game in Sarasota, Fla. The Orioles won, 6-2, as Britton allowed just one earned run in five innings.
Orioles starter Zach Britton pitches against the Yankees during… (Reuters photo )
March 22, 2011|By Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — Since Andy MacPhail took over as Orioles' president of baseball operations in June 2007, he has preached his mantra of "buy the bats and grow the arms."

Now, with several of the organization's top young pitchers already blossoming in the majors, MacPhail and the Orioles are faced with what to do with the left-handed prospect who might be the best of the bunch.

Zach Britton pitched five more effective innings Tuesday against a depleted New York Yankees lineup, giving more credence to the talk among scouts this spring that Britton is the best unproven lefty in Florida.

Almost certainly, however, the 23-year-old Britton won't be among the best young pitchers on an Opening Day major league roster. In fact, he might not even survive Wednesday's anticipated roster cuts.

Despite allowing just one earned run in 14 big league innings this month — by far the best statistical showing of any pitcher with a chance to make the team — Britton is not expected to break camp with the big leaguers because of a service-time stipulation.

Simply put, if Britton begins the year on the major league roster and remains on it for all of 2011, he will earn one full year of service time. Assuming he continues as a major leaguer after that, he will be eligible for free agency after the 2016 season.

However, if Britton is not recalled until April 21 or later, he will not be credited with a full year of service time, meaning he will not be eligible for free agency until after 2017. For a team that is hoping to collect quality young starters, keeping a pitcher like Britton in the minors for three weeks in order to retain him for an additional season is crucial to that development plan.

"Just like any player, people have options, people are out of options. Those things become factors," MacPhail said. "There are other factors as well. Schedule can be a factor, their technical status can be a factor, who their opponents are can be a factor. But [service time for Britton] is a factor."

Britton is aware of the situation — and he said after his one-run performance against the Yankees that he's not letting it affect him.

"I'm not really trying to pay too much attention to that," said Britton, the club's third-round pick in 2006. "I guess we'll see if I get cut, then that will be something that obviously will cross my mind. But right now, I am trying to be one of the best five."

Orioles manager Buck Showalter, his coaching staff and MacPhail are meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss the next round of cuts. Britton is scheduled to pitch Sunday in a split-squad game, but Showalter acknowledged "something could happen in the meeting where that may change."

"If Andy says tomorrow what your club's breaking [with], we are going to make the cuts. We are ready to go," Showalter said after the 6-2 win over the Yankees. "But if we've got more time to see people pitch, we will certainly take that into consideration. Ask me after 12 o'clock tomorrow."

There has been debate among scouts this spring as to whether Britton or New York Yankees 20-year-old phenom Manuel Banuelos is the most impressive young lefty in the Grapefruit League.

The Britton bandwagon likely grew after his ESPN-televised performance Tuesday in which the sinkerballer allowed six hits and one walk in five-plus innings while striking out five batters. He threw 90 pitches, 52 for strikes, and the five-inning stint ties him with Brad Bergesen for the Orioles' longest major league outing this spring.

"Wow," said designated hitter Nick Swisher, the only Yankee to get two hits against Britton. "His ball moves anywhere. He is one of those guys where the ball feels like it is coming out of his ear. Good movement. Fastball's pretty good. Everything has got movement."

With center fielder Curtis Granderson scratched before the game with an oblique injury, Swisher and first baseman Mark Teixeira were the only members of the Yankees' everyday lineup to play. They both walked away impressed with Britton, whose fastball registered at 96 mph on the Ed Smith Stadium radar gun and peaked at 95 mph with a consistent reading of 91 to 93 on one scout's gun.

"You don't see a lefty with that much movement," Teixeira said. "It moves late, and he throws in the mid-90s."

Britton struck out Teixeira on four pitches in the first inning and got the slugger to ground out in the third, but his most impressive moment came in the fifth. With one out and two strikes, Britton hit Granderson's replacement, Melky Mesa, with a pitch. Swisher doubled to bring Teixeira to the plate with runners on second and third and one out.

Britton went to a full count before striking out Teixeira on a fastball that hit 96 mph on the stadium radar gun.

"I wasn't really paying attention to who it was," Britton said. "I was concerned about making pitches and it just happened to be Teixeira, so I thought we had a good sequence and [catcher Matt Wieters] did a good job of mixing it up that last at-bat."

Britton induced Andruw Jones to ground out to end the threat.

"Being able to get out of that, make some pitches to get out of it, was pretty big," Britton said.

It just adds to the hype surrounding Britton, the organization's Pitcher of the Year who seems to be catching — and perhaps passing — the Orioles' other young arms.

He likely won't join them, however, until at least late April. But that doesn't make him any less intriguing to the Orioles' brass and the man whose plan was to build the arms.

"He is pretty much as-advertised. I saw him last year, and I saw him the year before that," MacPhail said. "So he has been someone that's been on our radarscope, albeit quietly, when a lot of guys were getting ballyhooed and we sort of kept our mouths shut. But eventually, he became known and has received a fair among of attention.

"We like him as a pitching prospect."

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