The Baltimore Orioles had a sensible, time-tested strategy for dealing with rookie left-hander Zach Britton’s 2011 timetable. They would send him to Class AAA Norfolk for a few weeks at the start of the season, thus delaying his big league debut just long enough to gain them an extra year of his talents in 2017, rather than allowing him to reach free agency after 2016.
The strategy – essentially manipulating a player’s service time for long-term financial considerations – is so common in baseball (the Nationals did much the same thing in 2010 with Stephen Strasburg), it actually becomes news when a team chooses not to delay a player’s arrival for that reason. We saw this in 2010 with the Atlanta Braves and Jason Heyward, and the San Francisco Giants in 2011 with Brandon Belt.
Even when the Orioles had to bring Britton, 23, to the majors at the start of the season, replacing injured lefty Brian Matusz in their rotation, they still could have accomplished the same mission simply by demoting Britton once Matusz returned. All that was required was that Britton spend at least 20 days in the minors, and it didn’t matter whether those 20 days were at the start, the middle or the end of the season. It was a simple equation: a full year of Britton in 2017 is more important than three weeks of him in April 2011.
But all of a sudden, a couple of important things have changed. First, the Orioles opened the season with four straight wins, and emerged from the season’s first homestand with a 6-3 overall record, putting them in first place in the AL East, a game ahead of New York and Toronto.
Second, Britton has gone 2-0 with a 0.66 ERA in his first two starts, confirming the reports of several major league scouts who came away from spring training believing Britton was the best pitching prospect in the Grapefruit League.
And suddenly, it won’t be so easy for the Orioles to send Britton to the minors. Even when Matusz returns, it would be hard to justify demoting a pitcher with a 0.66 ERA, particular when the Orioles are having to piece together the fifth-starter’s spot. (On Wednesday, they are expected to start journeyman Chris Jakubauskas.)
Maybe at some point Britton will struggle, and the Orioles can send him to the minors for a quick “refresher course” – which, just coincidentally, will last about three weeks. But for now, with the Orioles in first place and with Britton almost unhittable, he may want to unpack his bags in Baltimore. He might be there awhile.