Orioles' Zach Britton knows this is his chance to make an impression

Out of options, one-time LHP prospect looking good, says his arm feels healthy

  • Orioles starting pitcher Zach Britton pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays last week.
Orioles starting pitcher Zach Britton pitches against the… (David Manning, USA Today…)
March 02, 2014|By Eduardo A. Encina, The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — — These days Zach Britton can speak confidently about some of the tough times he's been through over the past two years. The left-hander admits that there were times when he felt he lost the confidence of his Orioles teammates when he was on the mound.

Simply put, the results weren't there. And that led his mind to become scrambled with a lot of questions and few answers.

"I've been through some stuff the past two years," Britton said. "But I try not to even think about that stuff anymore and just focus on what I have to do to be successful here."

Britton — now 26 — is no longer a prospect. More importantly, he's out of minor league options, so it's either make the major league roster this spring or a likely departure from the Orioles knowing that his potential was never realized here.

But early reviews on Britton are that he has among the best stuff of all the pitchers in major league camp. He appears to be fully healthy for the first time since the end of his rookie season in 2011. His trademark sinker looks sharp and in his first Grapefruit League appearance on Friday, his velocity sat at 93 mph, several ticks higher than the high 80s he brought into camp last season.

"I think he's a little more relaxed," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "I think he knows that it's kind of a year when everybody has to show their cards and I think that relaxes a lot of people. We'll see down here, but he seems to be a little more, not resigned, but 'OK, nothing's going to change about how I go about it, but I know the opportunity at some point for us or somebody else is going to be there.' I think he's a little more relaxed about it, but he's still got to perform."

"I think Zach knows there's a good chance he's going to be pitching for someone in the big leagues this year," Showalter said. "We hope it's us."

Britton entered the spring as one of a cavalcade of candidates competing for the final rotation spot, but the Orioles' signing of right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez means that starters are currently slotted into five different spots.

But Showalter has said a rotation spot can still be won. If Britton doesn't earn a spot, he would likely have an opportunity to get a spot as a long reliever because the club doesn't want to risk losing him.

"I think it's the same mindset," Britton said. "I want a spot in the rotation and if that's not available or if that's not the case, then I want to earn a spot in the bullpen. We have a really good team. I have a lot of really good friends here. This is where I want to be, so I'm going to do everything in my power on the field to earn a spot, whether it's in the bullpen of the rotation rather than having the opportunity to go somewhere else."

If the consolation prize is a bullpen job, Britton said, he will embrace the role.

"It's a big league job. I think one thing that [club executive] Brady [Anderson] has preached to us. … He wants us to focus on not just staying in the big leagues. It's about being the best. And that's something that you lose track of when you're injured and you're struggling," Britton said. "I think it's just thinking, 'If I'm in the bullpen, I'm going to be the best there and I'm going to earn my way back into the rotation.'"

All Britton has to do is look around him for examples of success. When right-hander Chris Tillman was out of options, he became a front-line starter and won 16 games last season. Right-hander Miguel Gonzalez emerged from obscurity in 2012 and worked from a long-relief role before fighting his way into the starting rotation. Even though left-hander Brian Matusz still hopes his future is as a starter, he's developed into the team's lockdown situational lefty relief arm.

Early problems

Britton's big league career started off strong during his rookie season in 2011, winning five of his first six decisions and pitching to a 2.89 ERA over his first 10 starts, but he landed on the disabled list with a strained left shoulder in August.

Those problems continued the next spring training when he had shoulder inflammation that prompted a visit to Dr. James Andrews and a subsequent platelet-rich plasma injection. That slowed his 2012 season — even though he put together a second-half four-game span in which he was 4-0 with a 0.92 ERA, which he said was his best run in his career, despite not being fully healthy. While he competed for a rotation spot last spring, he began the season in Triple-A Norfolk and posted a 5.45 ERA in seven big league starts.

Britton said things began to change for him during instructional league at the end of last season, when Norfolk pitching coach Mike Griffin told him he started to see flashes of the 2010 Triple-A version of Britton.

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