10:16am: Britton will undergo surgery tomorrow, per Dan Connolly of BaltimoreBaseball.com (via Twitter). The hope is the nature of the injury will allow for a somewhat shorter-than-typical recovery time, as Ghiroli tweets.
9:37am: In a stroke of terrible luck for lefty Zach Britton and the Orioles, the closer has suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon during offseason workouts, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (links to Twitter). Britton is expected to be sidelined for at least four to six months — a more precise expectation will only be known after surgery — so it seems the best-case scenario will be a return over the summer.
As Rosenthal notes, there are several layers of misery to unpack here. Most immediately, Britton was preparing and hoping for a healthy 2018 campaign after dealing with arm issues in the just-completed season. Instead, he’ll need to rehabilitate this unexpected injury — which is to his right Achilles, per MLB.com’s Britt Ghiroli (via Twitter) — before building back up into pitching form.
MLBTR projected that Britton would command $12.2MM in his final trip through the arbitration process. While it’s too late for the O’s to pull back their decision to tender him a contract, the club could end up releasing Britton to avoid paying him the full contract value. So long as he’s released before the 16th day of Spring Training, the O’s can avoid all but thirty days worth of salary.
Of course, the lost cash is only a small part of the problem here from the team’s perspective. Baltimore has toyed with the idea of trading Britton ever since last summer, when the club nearly did just that. The idea was to cash in the former ace closer to address other needs — namely, a still-glaring dearth of starters. Of course, the club was also reluctant to part with a pitcher that had been one of the game’s most dominant relievers in 2015 and 2016.
Instead of making that tough call, the O’s will seemingly be left with nothing to show for their final season of control over Britton. Perhaps it’s still conceivable the organization will retain him and hope he’s able to return late in the year, though that’d mean dedicating cash that could instead go to filling out the rotation. And it’s somewhat hard to imagine a scenario where Britton returns in time to turn into a trade chip, so there’s not really any downside protection if his recovery is slowed.
At this point, then, making the best of the situation for the Orioles could mean pursuing some kind of multi-year arrangement with Britton. The southpaw is still reasonably young — he’s just days away from his 30th birthday — so can still hope to find a major free agent payday in the future. And if he goes onto the open market, he’d likely be looking at a two-year rehab deal anyway (such as those signed recently by Drew Smyly and Michael Pineda). Since Baltimore is already on the hook for some cash, perhaps there’s an avenue for the sides to find a mutually agreeable deal that will allow Britton to work back to health with the only organization he has ever played for.
Even if there’s some lemonade to be crafted from this lemon, the news represents a big hit to the Orioles’ hopes for the coming season. It’ll certainly be interesting to see whether the loss of Britton will increase the organization’s willingness to trade away star third baseman Manny Machado, another key player who’s entering his final season of contract control. Of course, it now seems unlikely that righty Brad Brach will end up on the move, as he’s the obvious replacement for Britton in the ninth inning.
Meanwhile, teams that had been weighing pursuit of Britton will now need to adjust their strategies. There are some high-end late-inning arms left in free agency, though not top-tier lefties remain. Organizations that wish to add a closing-capable southpaw will now surely turn their gaze to the Padres’ Brad Hand, who already came with a justifiably lofty trade value.