Orioles demote Zach Britton to Double-A Bowie

Rookie pitcher could be back with the team later this month

July 09, 2011|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

BOSTON — Zach Britton, who won five of his first six starts to emerge as an American League Rookie of the Year candidate, was demoted to Double-A Bowie Saturday, a move that not only could extend his season, but could gain the Orioles an extra year of the pitcher's service time.

Britton, who was replaced on the roster by veteran reliever Mark Hendrickson, was given the news a day after he was knocked around for eight runs (seven earned) in just 2/3 of an inning in the Orioles' 10-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox. That left him 6-7 on the season with a 4.08 ERA in 18 starts.

"I wasn't expecting it," a visibly agitated Britton said. "Last night was a terrible outing, but I feel like if you base everything on that outing. I don't know. I feel like if I'm under a microscope that much, that's a lot of pressure for me when obviously I'm still trying to figure everything out at this level.

"It's more frustrating for me, because it's not where I want to be and there's no [set plan]. I feel like I'm kind of in-between like la-la-land. Almost like, you are throwing here and what's happening after that? So it's frustrating to say the least."

Britton, 23, has dropped six of his last seven decisions and has just one win since June 1. Over his last eight starts, he's 1-6 with a 6.86 ERA and had failed to pitch six innings or more in all but two of those outings.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter offered several reasons for the demotion, including Britton's recent struggles, the need to get some protection for a taxed bullpen and the club's desire to keep the rookie's innings down. They don't want him throwing more than 175 innings this season, and Britton is already at 104 1/3 before the All-Star break.

While Britton is scheduled to make two or three starts in the minors, Showalter said they won't be long outings, and Britton will keep his arm strength with extensive bullpen sessions.

"He can kind of get a little physical break and put us in a better position to carry him deeper into the season," Showalter said. "If things work out the way we hope it does, he misses one start. They won't be long outings. We're not going to burn up innings down there. We have that doubleheader on the 30th but he could come back before that. We'll see what our needs are. Obviously, we're in a tough situation with the starting pitching struggling that we need arms and people that can pitch here the next few days."

The tentative plan is for Britton to pitch three innings for Double-A Bowie on Friday. He'll then pitch July 20 and possibly July 25 before likely getting brought back up to the majors for a July 30 start against theNew YorkYankees.

The 20 days in the minor leagues would also prevent Britton from getting a full year of service time, pushing back his free agency for one season. That was believed to be one of the main reasons Britton didn't make the club out of spring training, though he was eventually promoted to start the third game of the season after Brian Matusz went to the disabled list. Showalter claims that contractual concerns weren't the prime motivation behind the move.

"If it was that much of a factor, we wouldn't have taken him to start with," Showalter said. "If there was some better factors involved, we wouldn't be having this conversation. We're just not pitching very well and we have a lot of things we have to cover innings-wise against any team, but especially against Boston here on the road. We took him to start the season. I'm hoping this is the last year we have this inning conversation."

At Bowie, Britton will be reunited with his older brother, Buck, an infielder for the Baysox, and pitching coach Kennie Steenstra, whom he has worked with throughout his minor league career. While he said that he was looking forward to those things, Britton still called the demotion a "tough pill to swallow."

"I feel like this is where I got to learn how to pitch, not in the minors," Britton said. "It's about learning how to make adjustments at the Major League level, not making adjustments at the minor league level. That's one thing that's a little frustrating, because I feel like the most important thing or me going into next year and finishing up this year is to make adjustments against Major League hitters. And I feel like I was starting to do that. Like I said, it's quite the shock."

Asked specifically about the service time potentially factoring into the decision, Britton said, "From a player's standpoint, you are thinking about winning. I think I give this team a chance to win every time I go out there. Last night was a bad outing. I've had some bad outings recently, but when you are player looking at it, you want to win. You are looking for the best guys that give you a chance to win. You aren't thinking about how many innings you have, or what do they think about this, when it comes to service time. So, obviously it's kind of tough to swallow for those reasons."

Showalter admitted it was tough to call Britton into his office and deliver the news, a development which came after the Orioles had to send another one of their struggling young starters (Matusz) to the minors.

"It was real tough for all of us, but in the big picture, it's best for Zach which is what's best for the Orioles," Showalter said. "When he's throwing well for us in September instead of sitting there over on the bench, we'll probably feel good about it. I don't know want to say it was as tough on us as it was on him, but it wasn't far behind. Trying to manage the long-term success with Zach is the way to go. It's a challenge for everybody to look at the big picture."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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