The Orioles’ young season received an early blow this weekend. Ace closer, Zach Britton, was placed on the 10-day DL after experiencing pain in his throwing arm.
That sounds dire, but quotes emanating from Camden Yards have been optimistic. As of this writing, Britton has been diagnosed with a “forearm strain” and will not receive an MRI.
The O’s will shut the lefty down for a week or so and see how his body responds. Expect the club to proceed super-cautiously with the 29-year-old lefty. The last thing they want is for Britton to blow his UCL while compensating for another injury.
So, while the initial news is good, the long-term prognosis is still a bit cloudy. It offers a preview into how tenuous the world of relievers can be: hero today, gone tomorrow.
For every Mariano Rivera, there are five or ten other guys with electric stuff whose arms simply disintegrated. Savvy organizations, such as the early-2000s Oakland A’s, recognize this and ship those guys out while their “stock” is high.
As history has shown, the returns for these guys can be fantastic – franchise-altering even. It’s not to say that the Orioles would be better off without Britton, but he may be more valuable as a trade chip.
Worse, they may have missed their chance to cash in for the highest return.
Let’s rewind to last December’s winter meetings. Baseball had just witnessed the postseason, and the birth of a new age of enlightenment.
Indian’s manager, Terry Francona led his team to the precipice of a title – in large part to his shrewd and aggressive deployment of relief pitcher, Andrew Miller. On the other side of the field, Joe Maddon’s Cubs traded for Aroldis Chapman and won it all.
As for Britton, all he had done was put up his most-dominating season to date. Here is a snippet of his excellence:
67 innings, 2-1, 0.54 ERA, .863 WHIP, 47 saves, 9.9 K/9, 2.5 WAR
Saves aren’t a sexy statistic to the analytic community, but elite closers still hold some “ooh-ah” currency for front offices. The Dodgers, under the whip-smart direction of Andrew Freidman, just spent $80 million to retain the services of reliever Kenley Jansen.
Britton, who leads MLB this season with five saves, is tied with Tom Gordon for the second-longest consecutive saves streak with 54 (30 behind record-holder Eric Gagne).
His legend only seemed to grow, with his infamous non-usage in the 2016 AL Wild Card Game. So, why trade such a valuable commodity? The answer lies in the word “valuable.”
Despite his age, he still has one more arbitration year left before he is eligible for free agency. Two, full seasons of dominance from Britton would have been an enticing proposition for a team that needed a closer but was less-willing to make long-term commitments.
Teams are reticent to give up their best prospects, these days, but they might be more willing after seeing the returns Cleveland and Chicago got. Meanwhile, the New York Yankees are still counting the king’s ransom they received for Chapman and Miller:
Gleyber Torres SS
Adam Warren RHP
Billy McKinney OF
Rashad Crawford OF
Clint Frazier OF
Justus Sheffield LHP
Ben Heller RHP
J.P. Feyereisen RHP
Not every player on this list will become a major league regular, much less a star. But, they (most-specifically Torres and Frazier) represent something everything organization covets: upside.
As my collegue Nate Delong highlighted, the Orioles aren’t exactly bursting with minor league depth. The big league roster features aging players at key positions, so the time is now for them to be developing the next wave of stars.
Any time you can trade a reliever for starting, position player, it’s a win. Position players appear in more games and are thus worth significantly more WAR over their careers than all but a handful of closers.
Britton was sublime last year, but even he was due for some regression, as evidenced by a 1.94 FIP and a .230 BABIP. That’s certainly been true, so far.
It’s a tiny, sample size, but he has looked hittable (10 hits allowed in 7 frames of work) and has seen his walk rate increase (3.86 BB/9 versus 2.42 last season).
It is unknown whether these struggles were due to the injury or not. Sometimes, closers become stale fruit overnight. Britton wouldn’t be the first, Oriole’s closer who experienced success, only to crash and burn his way out of town (see Johnson, Jim).
And, it’s not as if Baltimore didn’t have a perfectly-capable replacement, waiting in the wings. That’s Brad Brach, whom ESPN called “baseball’s most underrated reliever.”
Buck Showalter stopped short of naming Brach the replacement. But, with other arms like Darren O’Day also struggling, its likely Brach will be the guy until Britton returns.
The Orioles have shown they can pluck bullpen arms off the scrap heap. Knowing they had Brach waiting in the wings, the Orioles should have worn out the speed dial on teams like the Washington Nationals, who were seeking relief help and had prospects to burn.
It also made sense, from a PR-perspective. Trading Britton in-season would be a highly-unpopular move to fans; it gives the impression that they are giving up on the season.
However, the backlash would be quieter in the winter, when many fans are preoccupied with the NFL. Also, any hurt feelings would be mitigated if Baltimore had received one of those Godfather-packages like the Yankees got.
Now, fast-forward to the present. The Orioles are off to their customary fast start (56.4 April winning percentage over the past five seasons) and own one of the best records in baseball. At this point, moving Britton is not even close to being on their radar.
Right now, Showalter and the Orioles would settle for having “Great Britton” back in the line-up. It’s possible he’ll be back soon. Whether he’s effective or not is another story.
Either way, it’s clear they missed their chance to leverage an incredible trade asset, at the apex of its value.