Since it’s become apparent that the Orioles are going to be sellers at the trade deadline, it’s been hard not to imagine a prospect bonanza for a couple of their in-demand relievers. None have seemed to be more in demand than closer Zach Britton, fresh off of setting the American League record for consecutive save chances converted.
When you survey the landscape of teams that have serious playoff hopes and a need to bolster their bullpens, it’s understandable to think about some kind of major bidding war breaking out. ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote on Friday about some of the heavyweights who could surely use Britton: Astros, Dodgers, Cubs, Red Sox, Nationals, and Diamondbacks.
We can probably scratch out the Nationals and maybe even the Red Sox. Olney says that although a trade with either of these teams would be “the grown-up choice,” it’s not clear that would be the Orioles choice. Yet even without the two of them, that’s still some real demand for Britton’s services. That’s what O’s fans who want to see the system set up with prospects to help in the future want to hear.
However, that’s assuming all of those teams want Britton as much as Orioles fans might want them to. It may not be as easy as just pointing at the best prospects in those teams systems and waiting for one of them to pay up.
Joel Sherman of the New York Post and MLB Network wrote over the weekend that there are “scared” teams when it comes to putting together a big trade involving Britton. This is definitely NOT what Orioles fans who would like them to collect on prospects want to hear:
“Britton is such a red flag for me,” said a scout from a team that badly wants to add top-flight relief. “Your medical people are going to earn every dollar if you agree to a trade for him. He is just not consistent. I am not sure if it is elbow or the fact that he missed two months and needs time to get consistent.
“But what scares me is the Orioles gave him all the time he needed to get healthy, gave him plenty of rehab outings and I am watching a guy who just pounded the bottom of the strike zone last year and now the ball is spraying all over the place too often.”
My heart sank when I read this stuff. I think, deep down, we all fear that it may be true about Britton. Although his consecutive save streak has survived through the six saves he’s made this season, he hasn’t looked like the Britton of last year at any point this season.
That continued even into his Sunday outing, where Britton walked one batter and nearly walked a second. His velocity seems to be back where it should be, but will teams be convinced that his command and his health are in a good place in the limited time available before the trade deadline?
O’s fans can only hope that the feelings of this scout aren’t shared widely by the other teams that might be seeking Britton. Maybe they’re not, or maybe teams will end up getting desperate enough for relief help that they have to overlook that fact.
The Astros, for instance, may have just won their series against the O’s, but their bullpen didn’t have a great series. They’re going to walk into the playoffs, but if they want to give themselves the best chance of a deep run, they could use a better lefty relief option than Tony Sipp, and better choices generally than Luke Gregerson or Michael Feliz.
Britton may be the reliever who’s of the most interest to O’s fans, but he’s not going to end up being the only reliever on the market. Unfortunately for the O’s hopes of collecting a prospect haul, there are many guys who could be moved, including a few recognized by MLB Trade Rumors as top candidates: Pat Neshek from the Phillies, Mets reliever Addison Reed, Tigers lefty Justin Wilson, Padres strikeout machine Brad Hand, and Marlins closer AJ Ramos.
The best and healthiest version of Britton is better than any one of those guys. None even belong in the same sentence as him when considering Britton’s track record from 2014-16. It’s not even close. What’s not a sure thing is whether that’s the version of Britton on the market, either in actuality or how teams are perceiving him.
Olney followed up on Friday’s frenzy with a bit of caution on Sunday:
Rival evaluators aren’t entirely sure that the Orioles will actually trade Zach Britton before the July 31 deadline because it might be that the package of prospects offered will be less than optimal. ... It is taken as doctrine by some teams that even when a pitcher heals, as Britton apparently did, an elbow breakdown is a precursor of a larger problem to come.
Add to that concern the fact that a team would be acquiring both the remainder of Britton’s $11.4 million salary for this season as well as a likely $15+ million salary for next season, and it may be that the market will shrink even further. Not every team can afford to have a $15 million health and/or performance risk just hanging out in what might not even be the closer spot in their bullpens.
There’s just a week to go until the trade deadline. Minds are probably more or less already made up about what Britton is right now and what the risks about him are. The O’s have only six games to play before that deadline, so maybe with another two or three outings, he can change someone’s mind. Maybe not.
You might be gung-ho about the Orioles being sellers, but are you as on board with having Britton be traded if the package is “less than optimal”? Perhaps a healthy August and September would be the best thing for his value to other teams. Of course, there’s always the risk that healthy/effective season’s end never arrives and it’s the O’s who get stuck with a $15 million price tag for next season.
It’s just one more way that an O’s team that’s got a starting rotation that practically forces it into rebuilding mode is handcuffed from pursuing the rebuild. GM Dan Duquette can talk all he wants about how with better starting pitching, the team can still compete, but he surely knows that’s not coming. Mike Mussina isn’t walking through that door.
We’ll know in a week whether Britton has saved his last game in Baltimore as an Oriole. Though teams are in need of relief help, the availability of several other players combined with questions about Britton’s future could end up keeping him in an O’s uniform, for better or worse.
If the Orioles wanted to do a partial rebuild, which is still not a sure thing despite reports that owner Peter Angelos has approved selling off some players, including Britton, they might not end up being able to do all that much.