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Where does Zach Britton’s injury leave the Orioles?



Apr 8, 2017; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Zach Britton (53) pitches against the New York Yankees in the ninth inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports
Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

The Baltimore Orioles are probably closing up shop early this offseason.

It was always a long-shot that Baltimore was going to be a big seller; when the Orioles look around their division, they see two teams ascending — the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox — and two other teams in decline — the Toronto Blue Jays and, quite markedly, the Tampa Bay Rays, who just traded the best player in franchise history for some prospects.

That leaves the Orioles, should they have a halfway decent team, in a position to make some noise. Even if they’re not contending for the division, a good Oriole team might have healthy expectations for the wild card; as terrifying as New York looks right now, Boston could be a paper tiger.

Baltimore certainly has reasons to talk itself into thinking like this. Both executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter are free agents themselves at the end of the 2018 season; both men have clashed with each other, and Duquette with ownership, over their time with the team. Neither man seems to have much interest in a lengthy rebuild process; Duquette’s entire tenure in Baltimore has been spent fiddling with the team Andy MacPhail built, and watching it decline as players aged and left. Showalter’s a veteran manager in the twilight of his career, and is not a guy you’d necessarily want juggling young players’ at-bats even if that was something he was interested in doing. With their contracts expiring and Manny Machado leaving at the end of the season, 2018 is in many ways a last hurrah.

Then we bring into this situation the news out of California about closer Zach Britton. He has been endlessly frustrating for the Orioles — through no fault of his own — ever since that wild card game at the end of the 2016 season, when he was left standing in the bullpen as the Blue Jays won in extra innings. Then through spring training into the early part of 2017, Britton dealt with the ominous forearm strain in his pitching arm — sometimes a precursor to ligament damage and Tommy John surgery. He managed to avoid that by sitting out the first half of the year, and in the second half of the year he wasn’t quite the same pitcher he’d been over the previous three seasons. It wasn’t that many innings, however, and his results were still very good, if not great.

Now he has ruptured his Achilles tendon in offseason workouts. Once again, midseason is the most optimistic return date for him. That’s likely not counting the rehab stint he’ll have to do in the minor leagues getting game-ready. Perhaps as importantly, it removes him almost entirely from consideration as a trade target — maybe Baltimore can deal him at the last minute, but the contender would be picking him up blind to any knowledge of how he’d be able to perform in a game situation in 2018, and that would affect the package substantially.

Should the Orioles have traded Britton earlier? He’s been a target of trade talk all offseason, and before that he was sought by contenders at the 2017 trade deadline. But the return for him would have been depressed for the same reasons it’ll be depressed at this year’s deadline, should he be healthy enough to deal: He still has yet to prove he can still be 2014-15 Zach Britton, let alone the 2016 iteration who was the most dominant relief pitcher in baseball.

Now that the Orioles know they can’t hope for a great first half from Britton on a torn-down team — someone they can use to flip him for a big return at the deadline — they’re less incentivized to tear down the team in the first place. But then, given the people in place and the lack of dealable assets the Orioles have beyond Machado, center fielder Adam Jones and second baseman Jonathan Schoop, there was never going to be a Chicago White Sox-style fire sale.

The Orioles are heading back to the same waters they used to swim during the early 2000s — near-empty farm system, limping major league team, somewhere between 70 and 79 wins a season and there’s always next year. That’s probably their future regardless of whether Zach Britton is healthy or not, but the injury certainly doesn’t help.

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Jonathan Bernhardt lives and works in the Baltimore area. He has previously covered Major League Baseball for Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, VICE Sports, and The Guardian.