Britton optioned, will open season in Triple-A
Top pitching prospect expected to join Orioles before long
SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Orioles optioned top pitching prospect Zach Britton to Triple-A Norfolk on Tuesday, a roster move that by all indications will be temporary, given the 23-year-old's impressive spring.
Britton, who allowed three earned runs in 20 Grapefruit League innings, made his final start Monday against the Tigers, allowing two runs in six innings to finish with a team-best 1.35 Spring Training ERA.
Britton said on Tuesday that the experience and getting to know his teammates is what he will take with him most, although the team told him to not make any "long-term plans" in Norfolk.
The Orioles can go with four starters until April 10 because of scheduled off-days, and the thought is that the team will keep Britton in Triple-A until at least April 21, which is the first date that he could come up and not be credited with a full year of service time. By keeping Britton in the Minors for at least 20 days, he will remain under team control for another full year, until 2017.
"We all understand the business side," Britton said. "I think everyone knows it kind of came down to that, which is fine. It's flattering, that the organization feels that highly of me that they want me around for so long. If that's the decision that they made, then I'm actually kind of flattered by it, and I'll go down to Triple-A and continue to do well and be back up here hopefully within this month."
The decision isn't purely financial -- the O's have no intention of leaving Britton in the Minors long enough to delay his arbitration years -- but they do want to delay his free agency and keep him in an O's uniform. President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, who has made it the organizational philosophy to develop pitchers from within, said that he expects Britton to be with Baltimore within the season's first month.
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"I'd be shocked if he wasn't," MacPhail said. "[Britton not being here] could happen. We could be going good with what we have and he could scuffle."
The Orioles' best pitcher statistically this spring, Britton frequently drew compliments from opposing hitters.
"He throws hard; his ball moves a lot, too," Yankees captain Derek Jeter said after Britton tossed three scoreless innings against New York on March 7. Jeter, who was very complimentary of Britton's arsenal, had little doubt that it would play at the Major League level.
"He threw me a changeup that was one of the best pitches I've seen all spring," added Detroit's Will Rhymes. "It was sinking. It was cutting. I talked to [Jake] Fox, their catcher, on second base. He said that [Britton's] pitches go all over and he doesn't know exactly where it's going. That's kind of what it looked like. He made a couple pitches to me that were really, really good pitches."
Still there are things that Britton -- who pointed out on Tuesday that he's "not perfect" -- needs to improve on, most notably keeping his pitch counts in check.
"This kid has got a live arm," pitching coach Mark Connor said of Britton, who was named the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year last season.
"He's not a finished product, by any stretch of the imagination. There's some things in his delivery that I think can get better. And the secondary stuff has got to get better, where he can command a changeup, command a breaking ball. But if he can locate the two fastballs he throws in the Major Leagues, he's going to have success."
Added MacPhail: "We tend to look at these kids and put too much of the 'savior' tag on them. [Britton] will be good enough to be part of our five, but he's not going to just jump to No. 1."
Tuesday's decision, as unpopular as it may be among fans, is a fairly common occurrence in Major League Baseball. The Giants had catcher phenom Buster Posey start in Triple-A last season in order to get some more seasoning, and Royals third baseman of the future Mike Moustakas will start this year with Triple-A Omaha and likely be up by midseason, which will delay his arbitration eligibility by a year. The Mariners' top pitching prospect, Michael Pineda, is expected to break camp with the big league team, but infielder Dustin Ackley will begin in Triple-A, with the consensus opinion being that he will be with Seattle sooner rather than later.
"Obviously it's tough," said Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, who was a late-spring cut in 2008 despite hitting .262 with three homers and 10 RBIs. The Rays, who kept Manny Aybar instead, insisted that the top prospect needed more work, but the move raised questions about whether it was financially driven. Longoria said that he had no shortage of motivation in his short time at Triple-A Durham, and empathized with Britton's situation.
"The biggest thing is understanding that you are that close, you are only half a step away from being in the big leagues," said Longoria, who was recalled for good when Aybar went on the disabled list on April 12. "[And] understanding that probably everybody in the [Orioles'] clubhouse knows that [Britton] should be on the team. It's just understanding the politics of the game. When it's time for him to come up, he's going to be the first one to get the phone call."
Britton, who was in Minor League camp last spring, used the absence of a big league invitation as motivation, going 7-3 with a 2.48 ERA for Double-A Bowie before being promoted to Triple-A. He finished the season 3-4 with a 2.98 ERA in 12 starts for Norfolk and was disappointed by not getting a September callup. He has maintained all spring that his only goal has been to show the Orioles what he can do. The rest, as Britton has pointed out, is out of his control.
"I'm going to go down to Triple-A and try to continue what I was doing here," Britton said. "Like I said [Monday], it doesn't do me any good to go down to Triple-A and pout, because it's not going to help me get up here any quicker."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.