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Looking back on the Orioles Zack Britton trade return, one year later

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The Orioles got three minor league pitchers back for Zack Britton last year. The MLB level has already been rough to two of them.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees
I’ll never get used to this sight.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

As the 2018 Orioles stared down the reality of the necessary teardown, Zack Britton was another player where there was no question of if they would trade him, only where and when. One year ago today, we got our answer when the O’s sent him to the division rival Yankees.

The idea of trading Britton was in some ways even more strange than Manny Machado, as Britton had been in the organization for so long that Mike Flanagan was the general manager when he was drafted in 2006. He’d been around forever and seen a lot of people come and go through the organization. Still, it was only in 2014 that Britton was finally converted into a relief role, where he immediately blossomed into the Zack Britton of whom our only sour memory is the time he wasn’t asked to pitch.

The 2014-16 stretch Britton had compares favorably to any three-year stretch of even a legend like Mariano Rivera. Though there are those who feel the O’s should have traded Britton even coming off the wild card berth in 2016, I’m not among them. The O’s had a good reason to believe they could be good again in 2017, and if they were good, they needed that version of Britton.

Unfortunately, things worked out poorly for that assessment. Britton missed most of the first half of the season with forearm soreness that may have been made worse by Britton attempting to rush back from the injury. When he finally did make it back in July, he didn’t look like the Zack Britton of old, the O’s didn’t trade him at the deadline, and the 2017 season, as we know, went into the toilet.

Any question of whether the O’s would consider trading Britton prior to the 2018 season was ended when he ruptured his Achilles the week before Christmas in 2017. Britton made his way back to Baltimore on June 12 and had a 6.23 ERA by the end of June, with seven walks in 8.2 innings.

I mention all of this because we’re about to look at a disappointing trade return. The reason it was disappointing is pretty simple. By the time the O’s traded Britton, they were only offering two-plus months of his services. Britton was also two years removed from the elite Britton who helped the 2014 and 2016 teams to the playoffs. His walk rate was up and his strikeout rate was down.

That trend has not yet reversed a year after the trade, with Britton walking 20 batters in 41 innings and striking out only 34. By comparison, in 2016, Britton struck out 74 batters and walked just 18 in 67 innings. Despite this, Britton has good results this year with his 2.63 ERA.

The trade

Yankees get: Zack Britton

Orioles get: RHP Dillon Tate, LHP Josh Rogers, LHP Cody Carroll

Dillon Tate

There was a time when Tate was a hot prospect. In his junior year at UC-Santa Barbara, Tate struck out 111 batters with 28 walks in 103.1 innings. That was enough for the Rangers to take him with the #4 pick in the 2015 draft and enough for him to be rated as high as the #36 prospect in the game by MLB Pipeline prior to the 2016 season. Tate still had enough prospect heat that he was of interest to the Yankees in that July’s deal that sent Carlos Beltran to Texas.

Any team taking a college starter so high in the draft is probably hoping that his polish will help him move quickly up towards MLB. By the time Tate was included in this Britton deal, he was 24 years old and still grinding it out for the Yankees Double-A Trenton club, with his development never getting fast-tracked due to various injuries. He was a recognizable name for anyone who had been following prospects closely, but he was not a hot prospect to headline a trade.

What the Dan Duquette regime thought it was going to be getting out of Tate, only they will know. The Mike Elias regime didn’t take too long of a look at Tate before proclaiming, “Reliever.” Tate was shuffled into the bullpen after just two starts for the O’s Double-A Bowie affiliate this April. Tate’s injury luck being what it is, a herniated disc followed in late April that shelved Tate until June.

Since his June 7 return to Bowie, Tate has pitched in 12 games, with a 1.77 ERA over 20.1 innings. He has struck out 20 batters and walked just four, and overall has held opposing batters to a .169/.213/.282 batting line. It’s a nice stretch of multi-inning relief. The only question is whether his batted ball luck will hold, with batters having a .204 BABIP against him.

There are relievers capable of carrying lower than average BABIPs over long stretches. One such reliever is Britton, who had a .215 BABIP over the whole 2014 season and .230 in his 47-for-47 save season in 2016. If the Orioles are fortunate, Tate might prove himself to be in that class of reliever. Perhaps he, like Hunter Harvey, will get a chance to test himself against more advanced relievers before the year is out.

Josh Rogers

Rogers was an 11th round pick by the Yankees in the 2015 draft. By the time the Orioles acquired him, he was 24. Rogers, like Tate and Carroll, had to be added to the 40-man roster by last winter, which seems to be why they were made available in the first place.

The High-A level was good to Rogers in 2016 and to start out 2017. From there, some underwhelming starts at Trenton, and then, in 2018, at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre eventually brought him onto the O’s radar, perhaps thanks to an extremely modest 3.95 ERA, with 83 strikeouts and 29 walks in 109.1 innings.

After Rogers followed that up with a 2.05 ERA in five starts for Norfolk after being traded to the O’s, that was enough for him to be summoned into the disaster that was last September’s O’s rotation.

Baseball has been less kind to Rogers since he got his big league break. He was trashed in three big league starts last September, in five big league relief outings this year, and in 11 Norfolk starts this year as well. In his limited MLB outings he’s not struck out many batters and hasn’t been able to harness the command he had in the minors.

Rogers re-injured his UCL and had to get Tommy John surgery earlier this month, so he’s probably out of the picture until 2021. He’s going to have to pitch a lot better to get himself back into the picture even once he’s healthy again. Not every soft-tossing lefty can suddenly turn into 2019 first half (and hopefully beyond) John Means.

Cody Carroll

Carroll, who was a 25th round pick in that same 2015 draft, was 25 when the Orioles acquired him. Did Duquette think, “I’m going to get older guys and rebuild sooner?” Or are these merely the scraps he had to settle for because of Britton’s diminished value by the time the O’s finally got serious about trading him?

The 6’5” righty Carroll averaged 96.2 mph in his 15 MLB relief outings last year. In the minors, he harnessed that velocity for K/9 of 11 or higher at High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A in the Yankees organization. He was also a bit on the wild side, with a BB/9 of 3.9 or higher at each one of those same stops.

What that turned into in his brief MLB experience was 13 walks in 17 innings, with only 16 strikeouts to go along with it. That kind of walk rate isn’t going to work no matter how many guys a pitcher is striking out. Carroll has not pitched yet in 2019 due to a back injury. His spirit has lived on as fellow tall, wild Tanner Scott has appeared in MLB, walked too many guys, and been repeatedly sent back down to the minors.

**

A year after this deal, there’s yet to be much of an indication that either Carroll or Rogers will be a part of the next good Orioles team, or even quasi-capable placeholders during this rebuilding phase. It seems to be settled that if Tate does have anything to offer to the O’s, it’ll be as a reliever.

Having seen the best of Britton, it stinks to think that the O’s were not able to get better future value as a result of having him on their team. Maybe it was a bad decision to not trade him sooner. Maybe it was bad luck. It was bad something, though, and so here the O’s are, with nearly all of the eggs from this trade in the Tate basket. If he has a good big league future ahead of him, that won’t feel quite as bad.

If the Andrew Cashner trade is any indication, Elias won’t be swinging deals like this where much or all of the return consists of players being dumped by other teams months ahead of when they’d be left exposed to the Rule 5 draft.