The Baltimore Orioles are in the process of breaking in a cadre of a highly-acclaimed pitching prospects. Brian Matusz in entrenched in the big league rotation, while Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta have struggled to translate their success in the minors to the highest level. Another blue-chip arm may soon make his major league debut — Zachary Britton could bump the oft-battered Brad Bergesen out of the rotation at some point. Even if Britton doesn’t get the call later this year, he’s a vital part of Baltimore’s rebuilding effort. Let’s examine his long-term value.
The O’s took Britton out of a Texas prep school in the third round of the 2006 draft. The 6-foot-3 lefty added lots of zip to his fastball during his senior year — Baseball America noted that his heater climbed from 86-87 MPH to 92-93 MPH — and he also possessed what BA called a “power curve.” Britton’s velocity did decline during his last few starts leading up to the draft, though. He tossed 34 innings in the Rookie-Level Appalachian League that summer, and he struggled to control the zone (5.6 K/9, 5.3 BB/9, 5.41 FIP). After the season, BA said that Britton sat 86-90 MPH in the Appy League, though they predicted he’d crack the 90’s more frequently as his 180 pound frame filled out.
Baltimore took a cautious approach with Britton in 2007, assigning him to the short-season New York-Penn League. He had 6.4 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 0.1 HR/9 in 63.2 IP. According to Minor League Splits, Britton’s park-and-luck-adjusted FIP was 3.95, and he generated ground balls at an impressive clip (64.5 GB%). Baseball America said that he showed “the live low-90’s fastball that made him a third-round pick,” while also developing a sharp slider in the instructional league.
In 2008, Britton enjoyed a breakout season in the Low-A South Atlantic League. Pitching 147.1 frames, he used his sinker/slider combo to strike out seven batters per nine innings, hand out 3 BB/9 and give up 0.5 homers per nine. Britton’s adjusted FIP was 3.92, and he maintained his Brandon Webb-like ground ball rate (63.8 GB%). The next year in the High-A Carolina League, Britton whiffed 8.4 per nine, walked 3.5 and coughed up 0.4 HR/9 in 140 innings. Scorching the earth with a 65 GB%, Britton posted a 3.37 adjusted FIP.
Leading up to 2010, Britton earned plenty of superlatives from scouting types. Baseball America named him the number 63 prospect in the game. John Sickels graded him as a B prospect. “Love the grounders, solid strikeout rate, I’m pro-Britton,” said Sickels. ESPN’s Keith Law was an even bigger fan, ranking Britton 25th on his top 100 list. Law liked Britton’s solid punch out rates and extreme ground ball tendencies, and noted the development of the lefty’s changeup:
Britton is a true sinker/slider pitcher with enough velocity to work as a starter and a potential out pitch in the slider to miss bats when he’s not getting ground balls. His sinker has solid-average velocity with legitimate plus sink, and he’ll flash a four-seamer up to 94. His slider — although not as consistent — flashes plus, and he’s willing and able to backfoot it to right-handed hitters, then throwing the sinker away to get a weak grounder or just a swing and miss. His changeup improved over the course of the season to the point that it’s an average pitch or better, eliminating a major concern for sinker/slider guys — a typical weakness against opposite-side hitters…He would slot in very nicely as a No. 2 starter behind Brian Matusz, or as an outstanding No. 3 behind Matusz and Chris Tillman.
Britton began the year with the Bowie Baysox of the Double-A Eastern League, where he posted rates of 7 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and 0.4 HR/9 in 87 innings. He continued to induce grounders like few others (64.1 GB%) while compiling a 3.44 adjusted FIP. Bumped up to the Triple-A International League, Britton has 5.5 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and nary a homer surrendered in 27.2 IP. The 22-year-old is — you guessed it — burning lots of worms with a 72.2 GB%, and his adjusted FIP sits at 3.47.
The chances of Britton getting ample major league innings this season are slim — the O’s aren’t playing for anything of consequence, and the southpaw is a little more than 30 frames away from his previous career high workload. In keeper leagues, though, Britton is an intriguing option. He’s not going to post elite K rates, but that’s mostly because he’s too busy getting batters to smack the ball into the dirt. Britton misses a solid number of bats, and his control has improved enough that it doesn’t figure to hinder his development. While Tillman and Arrieta get more attention, Britton might just be the better long-term buy.