It’s entirely possible that Zach Britton never throws another major league pitch in an Orioles uniform, despite coming to an agreement with Baltimore on a $12 million, one-year deal to buy out the last of his arbitration seasons.
Britton will miss at least the first half of the season with a damaged Achilles tendon suffered during offseason exercise, but given the nature of the injury — it’s not to his arm or shoulder, and doesn’t pose the constant risk of reaggravation many abdominal injuries do — even if his timetable is delayed and he’s still on rehab assignment by the time the trade deadline rolls around, a team should be willing to take a chance on him and acquire Britton for a second-half contending roster.
It is more likely that Britton will indeed return to Baltimore for a few weeks in late June and early July, but operate in more of a fireman role instead of deposing whomever Baltimore has installed at the back of the bullpen. Britton has nothing left to prove as a closer — he’s shown he can handle the pressure and the innings, and most of the teams that were looking at him last year, most notably the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers, were thinking of bringing him in for a setup/fireman role, rather than becoming the primary closer on the team.
So the Orioles have every incentive to choose a closer in spring training for the entire year, should he prove capable of holding the job down. Who, then, are the possible choices the Orioles have, and which one is the best?
- Darren O’Day
There are really only three candidates on the roster, unless the Orioles sign someone like David Hernandez (an old friend of the organization who came up under the MacPhail regime) to compete for the closer role in camp and get a setup role if one of the expected contenders wins out. The most senior member of this gang of three, and therefore the one you’d usually expect to get prime billing for the closer spot, is veteran reliever and current setup man Darren O’Day. He’d also be the worst choice.
Despite being a force in relief for Baltimore from 2012 to 2015, when he threw 263 relief innings of 1.92 ERA baseball while striking out 283 opposing batters, O’Day fell off hard in 2016 thanks to injury, barely managing 30 innings. While he was healthy enough to throw a full season in 2017, he remained a shadow of his former self, allowing a 3.43 ERA. The big problem in 2016-2017 for O’Day was his command — his walk rate almost doubled over the past two years, and that’s not what you want to see from a guy who is being given high-leverage innings (jokes about the wild card game in Toronto aside, Oriole manager Buck Showalter has shown a willingness to ask for more than three outs from his closers). If the Darren O’Day of old shows up in spring training and earns the job, more power to him — but if the idea is to groom him into a closer and then flip him at the deadline, too, O’Day doesn’t have the track record, the pedigree, or the attractive contract to inspire a heavy return.
- Mychal Givens
Of all the players on the current active roster, Givens has the best chance of being the closer of the future. He took a step forward with his command last year, limiting his walks, and in a Britton-less bullpen is already the seventh-inning man by default. More attractively to the front office, Givens is still in a pre-arbitration position this offseason He won’t be first-year arbitration-eligible until 2019, and won’t be a free agent until 2022. If he continues to pitch like he has been since joining the roster as a full-time member of the pen in 2016, the question isn’t if Givens will be the team’s primary closer someday — it’s when.
This year probably isn’t his time; next year is, perhaps with a trial run at the end of this season if the Orioles go full-fire sale. It’s hard to know if Givens will be on the next good Baltimore team — so much of the club is in flux right now — but barring injury or a sudden loss of command, he has a good shot to be the next great Baltimore closer.
- Brad Brach
The line on Givens is nothing against Brad Brach, the guy who will presumably take the early-season closer’s duties in 2018 for the second straight year. Brach is an excellent reliever who came out of nowhere after being dealt to the Orioles from the San Diego Padres — a 42nd-round pick who finally found his major league footing as setup man for Zach Britton during Britton’s best years. But Brach is on a free agency timer, too, and he might also be getting dealt at the trade deadline — either to a different team than Britton, or packaged with him in a deal reminiscent of the Sean Doolittle-Ryan Madson trade the Oakland Athletics made with the Washington Nationals halfway through last year. Givens might be the better pitcher now — Brach had a down 2017 — but he’s not going anywhere, and Brach could use the showcase.
Zach Britton is the best closer the Orioles have had in years, and Brad Brach might be almost as good as his successor… but it would be a surprise if either man is on the Baltimore roster by the time the 2018 season ends.