After posting one of the most dominant seasons by a closer in Major League Baseball history, Zach Britton has been challenged to stay on the field in 2017. The Baltimore Orioles played their 92nd game of the season Monday night against the Texas Rangers, and Britton’s contribution has consisted of 14 innings pitched and five saves.
The next two weeks will bring lots of opportunity for clarity -- for Britton and the Orioles. In the interim, Britton could emerge as the answer to what might be the most compelling trade deadline question still out there:
Is he the Andrew Miller of 2017?
Flash back to last summer, when closers were all the rage at the trade deadline. The Cubs made a statement by acquiring Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees, and the Nationals filled their closer void by adding Mark Melancon in a deal with Pittsburgh. But no trade deadline addition had a bigger impact than Miller, who was dominant for the Indians in August, September and October as Cody Allen's late-inning tag-team partner after Miller's arrival from New York.
Britton has the talent and pedigree to leave his mark on the 2017 season, but multiple dominoes would have to fall for him to be pitching for a contending club by July 31.
Let’s begin with the fate of the Orioles, who appear to be hurtling toward oblivion. They’re 43-49 with an American League-worst run differential of minus-92, and they’re buried behind a pack of teams at 4½ games out in the wild-card race. Worse yet, when the O’s needed to make a statement with a positive burst out of the All-Star break, they dropped three straight to the Cubs and were outscored 27-11.
Dan Duquette, Baltimore’s executive vice president of baseball operations, has yet to commit to a definitive course of action. He said his first choice is for the team to start playing better and allow him to add rather than subtract.
"If we’re not at the point where we can advance to the playoffs with this group, we would have to make the determination to try to get better later," Duquette told ESPN.com. "The way I look at it, you’re either trying to get better now or trying to get better later. Sometimes you can put them both together. Other times, you have to take a step back to take two steps forward.
"The important thing is to get Zach back pitching at the level he’s established for himself. Then we can see where the club is. We do have a little bit of depth to our bullpen. It’s been one of the strengths of the club for the last couple of years."
Britton, who recently returned from the disabled list after missing two months with a left forearm strain, still needs to show he’s healthy and ready to pitch back-to-back days to reclaim the Baltimore closer’s job from Brad Brach. It’s a positive sign that Britton's fastball velocity has held firm in the 95-96 mph range. But as an AL talent evaluator observed, "The last thing you want to do is trade for a pitcher who goes on the DL on Aug. 10."
Finally, if the Orioles lose contact with the pack and Britton shows he’s close to top form, owner Peter Angelos will have to sign off and give Duquette the latitude to weigh offers. Orioles manager Buck Showalter will presumably have input in the process, as well.
Britton, Brach, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, third baseman Manny Machado and reliever Mychal Givens are Orioles players with the talent and reasonably priced contracts to help Duquette replenish the farm in trades. But Angelos is 87 years old, and he might not have the patience for a full-scale rebuild.
Potential landing sites for Britton abound. Sources confirmed that the Los Angeles Dodgers have interest in pairing Britton with closer Kenley Jansen as half of a two-headed bullpen monster. The Astros would like to upgrade their rotation, but they have the option of focusing on the bullpen if they can’t land the pitcher they want in a weak starting pitcher market. Arizona could use some stability at closer after riding with 40-year-old Fernando Rodney for four months. And as one executive observed, "I wouldn’t count out the Cubs."
The Washington Nationals could be a natural fit for Britton given their season-long bullpen nightmare, but sources said the strain of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) TV dispute has been a significant impediment to on-field dealings between the Nats and Orioles. A source said Washington never even inquired about Britton before acquiring relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle in a trade with the Oakland Athletics. "It’s just a terrible partnership," one official said of the friction between the two organizations.
Britton’s contract status is a mixed bag. He is making $11.4 million this year, and his salary could tick up toward the midteens with a strong finish. That’s not cheap, considering that Miller is averaging a more club-friendly $9 million annually over the life of his four-year, $36 million deal. But potential suitors are motivated by the prospect of having Britton under control for another run in 2018.
Until Duquette gets the all-clear signal to shop Britton in earnest, interested teams are conditioned to be skeptical. Any Baltimore trade activity is contingent upon the owner being on board.
"That’s a very intriguing name," a National League general manager said of Britton, "but I think the odds of Angelos selling are very low."
This is the reality of Baltimore baseball at the trade deadline: The only way Zach Britton can be the Andrew Miller of 2017 is if the Orioles decide to set him free.