With much less fan fare than Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman or Jake Arrieta, Baltimore's most-prized pitching prospect, Zach Britton, made his major league debut yesterday. He earned the victory after confounding Rays hitters for six innings, allowing one run on three hits and striking out six.
For Britton and the Orioles, the rookie's first big league start came much earlier than expected. An injury to Brian Matusz, the O's No. 2 starter heading into the season, necessitated the call up of the 23-year-old who made his reputation as one of the best ground-ball pitchers in the minor leagues.
Britton's sinker-slider combination was in fine form Sunday, getting three strikeouts with his vicious slider, a plus-plus pitch according to Baseball America, and four ground-outs with his sinker, which B.A. consistently ranked as the best pitch in the minors over the past few seasons.
His steely performance begs the question. How long will Britton be a part of this rotation?
Will he get sent back down to Triple A as soon as Matusz returns from the disabled list? Or will the O's choose to keep him in the rotation, possibly forcing Brad Bergesen to the bullpen long term?
Either way, it looks like the O's will be playing from a position of strength.
If they choose to send Britton back down on April 13th, the day Matusz is eligible to return, he will have gotten two starts in the big leagues, and team officials will have had enough time to get two long looks at him.
But, essentially, he'd just be biding time in the minors, at a level he's proven himself to be better than, and at a big league cost. Britton's promotion caused his major league minimum salary to kick-in, meaning the O's have to pay him at that level for the remainder of the season. Which goes back to the main reason the team wanted to wait a month or two to call him up in the first place.
By promoting Britton for his ML debut on Sunday, they subtracted a year from their control over him.
If they decide to keep him in the rotation, there's going to have to be some re-arranging of the O's bullpen. If he does indeed force Bergesen into a relief role, then the team is going to have to get rid of a reliever, most likely Josh Rupe, who was arguably the team's best pitcher in Spring Training...aside from Britton that is.
Rupe, who spent the 2010 season with Kansas City, also made his Orioles debut on Sunday. He pitched a scoreless inning, but is still the most at-risk pitcher due to his team friendly contract and his lack of history with the team.
Kevin Gregg, Jeremy Accardo and Jim Johnson aren't going anywhere. Neither is Mike Gonzalez, who has caused much heartburn amongst O's fans, thanks to a lucrative guaranteed contract. You could make the case that Jason Berken was the team's best reliever last year and Koji Uehara was nearly unhittable during his late season promotion to closer in 2010.
That leaves Rupe as the odd-man out.
What should the O's do with Britton once Matusz returns?
Britton could further complicate the process by pitching well in his next start, which will most likely come against the Rangers this Friday, but could be pushed back to Saturday in order to give him more recuperation time from the adrenaline depletion that any rookie pitcher will tell you accompanies their big league debut.
The Rangers aren't exactly a ground-ball kind of team (see Texas' ML-leading 11 HR through three games), so they should provide a much stiffer test for him.
For the Orioles though, they just have to be pleased that for the first time in a long time; they have at least six or seven starters; they know they can count on over the course of a very, very long season.