The news Wednesday that Orioles’ closer Zach Britton ruptured his right Achilles in California dealt a huge blow to the team’s already suspect chances of being competitive in 2018.
It also left a whole lot of questions surrounding what the injury means for the Orioles, their path for the remainder of the offseason and, of course, for Britton’s future.
Here’s my best attempt at answering them.
How does a pitcher blow out his Achilles?
The easy answer is that Britton was working out in California at his agent’s physical performance complex. He was doing sprints and, as he started another run, the Achilles popped. It’s a freak thing in a sense, but Britton said, after consulting with the doctor who will perform the surgery today, it’s a fairly common injury among today’s pro athletes. They’re bigger, stronger and more muscular, and sometimes the body doesn’t support the stress that’s now asked of it by competitive athletes.
Britton reiterated he wasn’t doing anything crazy; a simple wind sprint he’s done thousands of times in his athletic career. He’s been doing it for weeks while recovering from season-ending knee discomfort. Just last week, Britton told me how great his body was feeling and that he was looking forward to a healthy 2018. And, like that, everything changed.
How long will he be out?
There’s not an exact timetable, but Britton should get a better sense today after his surgery in Los Angeles with specialist Dr. Kenneth Jung of Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic. The six-month window seems as reasonable as any, with four-to-nine months being the outlying parameters. Jung told Britton that because he is a pitcher, and not a football player or basketball player or baserunner who is cutting a lot, the recovery should be quicker. It’s also helpful that it is his right, landing leg and not his push-off leg, Britton said. And the doctors told him there’s no reason he can’t have a full recovery and get back to being a quality pitcher. This isn’t an arm injury.
Six months of recovery puts Britton, who turns 30 on Friday, back on the mound in late June, which would be before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
An interesting comp is St. Louis right-hander Adam Wainwright, who tore his left Achilles – landing leg – at age 33 while pitching on April 25, 2015. Originally, his recovery timetable was nine to 12 months. He made it back to the mound that season, returning to the Cardinals on Sept. 30 in a one-inning relief stint. So, Wainwright’s recovery was just over five months.
Will the Orioles hold onto Britton now that he won’t pitch for months and is a free agent at the end of 2018?
That’s really the $12-million-plus question. The Orioles tendered Britton a contract for 2018, and that means they are contractually obligated to pay him something even if they release him. Now, the initial assumption was that something would be only 30 days of his 2018 salary if he is released by mid-February, as is protocol for releasing contracted, one-year players. Given that scenario, the Orioles would be on the hook for roughly $2 million if he is released by baseball’s first salary deadline.
However, The Baltimore Sun reported that there is a stipulation in baseball’s collective bargaining agreement that would prohibit a team from dumping a contracted player if the player is injured doing employment-related activities in the offseason, which Britton was. So it appears that if the Orioles released Britton, he’d be eligible for his full salary — or at least his 2017 salary — due to that provision. At the very least, he’d have legitimate grounds for a grievance.
If released, Britton could sign with anyone and potentially could be pitching for another team by June — something the Orioles presumably wouldn’t want. There’s also the human part here. Britton has been one of the club’s best players — and citizens — since he was drafted in June 2006. No current player has been with the organization as long as Britton. Plus, he may have trade value in July again, though it won’t be close to the extent of when he was healthy.
Owner Peter Angelos has had a soft spot for loyal, long-term employees and for in-shape players that have been beset with injuries. That could alter matters, as could Britton’s tight relationship with vice president Brady Anderson, who has worked closely with the pitcher for years.
How does insurance play into an injury like this?
That’s a question that I haven’t been able to find the full answer to yet. Orioles players are required to sign insurance forms for the team in the spring. I don’t know if those policies cover injuries incurred in the offseason, though. I would assume it’s unique to each team, and I don’t know specifically how it works for the Orioles.
What does this do to Britton’s trade value?
Crushes it. It was already damaged by an injury-filled 2017, in which he pitched 38 games, by far his fewest as a full-time reliever. Since Britton’s been relatively healthy most of his career, 2017 could have been dismissed as a blip. But now there will be health concerns going forward until he regains his health and previous dominant form which made him baseball’s best in 2016.
Is it possible this could extend Britton’s time as an Oriole?
It’s not a far-fetched scenario. Obviously, the club needs to figure out how long Britton will be out and how its 2018 budget unfolds. But the sides will be negotiating his 2018 salary as part of the arbitration process in January and February. It’s possible both sides could agree that a two-year deal makes sense.
It would allow the Orioles to hold onto Britton, pay a little less in annual average value and give Britton some time to work back to his previous level without rushing things because of his pending free agency. And, if he comes back in June and excels, well, then the Orioles have the option of dealing him in late July or again next winter after his value is re-established. Now, this is all dependent upon the Orioles being proactive and spending eight figures annually on a closer – two things that aren’t exactly in their organizational blueprints.
What does this do to Manny Machado’s chances of being traded this winter?
The dots have been connected that the Orioles are more likely – or less likely – to deal their star third baseman now that they don’t have Britton as a trade chip. I don’t think it works that way – either way. Machado is an entity unto himself. He’s not tied to anyone. The Orioles will trade Machado if they think they are getting a quality return for him. And they’ll hold onto him if they believe they aren’t getting top value. It has nothing to do with Britton’s situation.
What does this do to Brad Brach’s chances of being traded this winter?
Now, this one is interesting. On one hand, if the Orioles truly want to be competitive in 2018, dealing away Brach, the de facto closer in Britton’s absence, further weakens the team’s only true strength, the bullpen. Yes, Mychal Givens might be able to handle closing duties and Darren O’Day is still around as a safety net. But the lack of reliable starting pitching makes it seem likely the club can’t afford to deal Brach with Britton on the shelf.
The flip side here is with Britton on the shelf, the Orioles probably can’t afford not to deal Brach. He’s their best trade chip not named Machado. And the Orioles have to add starting pitching this winter. I’m not sure where that comes from unless Brach is dealt. This one is definitely worth watching.
Who will close for the Orioles in Britton’s stead?
This one is for you fantasy baseball players. Brach is the expected choice, like he was last year. And he’d likely do a solid job again. If he is traded, then Givens is next in line. And O’Day will close in a pinch, I’d imagine. But a young guy like Tanner Scott is way down the depth chart.
Any other thoughts on this?
As sports journalists, we’re supposed to maintain our objectivity at all times. And, so, I’m not emotionally connected to how this injury affects the Orioles next season. But I think anyone who knows Britton feels terrible for him and his family. He’s one of the good guys. And the fact that he got hurt in the offseason while working out and trying to improve his physical condition for 2018 flat-out stinks. Add in that he’s having surgery the day before his 30th birthday, and, well, it doubly stinks for him.
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