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Early AL RoY Favorite: Zach Britton

In the American League East, Tampa Bay and Toronto get the bulk of attention as clubs with a lot of up-and-coming talent. Baltimore, though, has a lot of potential as well and could soon surprise a lot of people – if they’re not already – on the strength of the organization’s young pitching.

With Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, and Brian Matusz already making names for themselves in the young rotation, an early-season injury to the latter pitcher has given Baltimore fans an earlier-than-expected glimpse at ground-ball machine Zach Britton. Perhaps one of the most underrated pitching prospects in the game (who is slowly gaining supporters) Britton burst onto the scene on April 3 with an impressive performance against the Tampa Bay Rays during his MLB debut.

In his first start, the lefty allowed just three hits in 6.0 innings and struck out six batters. Facing his second test on April 9 against a potent Texas team, the youngster allowed just four hits and no runs in 7.2 innings of work. He walked three batters for the second straight start and struck out just two hitters. So far in his young career, Britton’s repertoire has looked good and his three pitches – fastball, slider and changeup – have each been average or better. Britton is known for having strong ground-ball rates in the minors (64.0 GB% in ’10) but he induced just four grounders during his first start; he then returned to his worm-burning ways against Texas with 14 ground balls (and just four fly balls).

Although he has an exciting mix of sink and velocity, the rookie could struggle with the current infield defenders behind him. Third baseman Mark Reynolds is not a good fielder at his current position and second baseman Brian Roberts has definitely seen his defense slip in the past few seasons. Veteran first baseman Derrek Lee has been inconsistent at his position in recent years. Only shortstop J.J. Hardy figures to be a consistent asset to Britton. His fellow young pitchers (Tillman, Arrieta, and Matusz) are all fly-ball pitchers and must content, instead, with the O’s questionable outfield defense.

Britton is talented enough to have a similar impact (~2.5 WAR performance) in 2011 to what Matusz had for the big league club in 2010, even though he is in The Show a little sooner than expected. Britton’s overall command/control still need some fine tuning and his changeup is developing so he’ll have to learn to make adjustments once the scouting reports make their way around the league. With time, he could easily develop into a No. 2 starter and one of the top southpaws in the American League.