Zach Britton was never meant to start the season in the Baltimore Orioles' starting rotation. Nor, was he expected to be an early season contender for AL Rookie of the Year.
Britton was expected to spend spring training with the big club, before spending a few months at Triple-A. The Orioles were prepared to be cautious with Britton, and it appeared he would not be rushed to the big leagues like so many other Orioles pitching prospects.
Well, that careful plan was blown to shreds in April.
Britton pitched so well in spring training that when another Orioles youngster, Brian Matusz, went down, management had no choice but to bring Britton to the majors when the Orioles broke camp.
So, how would the 23-year-old rookie, who had never been tested above Double-A, fare in his rookie season? Britton looked every bit the phenom the Orioles proclaimed him to be in April and May, running up a 5-3 record to go with a 2.93 ERA, and earning consideration for Rookie of the Year.
After success came so easily at the major league level, Orioles brass was assuredly patting themselves on the back for dodging a bullet with Britton. This early promotion could have hindered his development into a major league ace.
Now, it is July, and Orioles' president of baseball operations, Andy MacPhail, and manager Buck Showalter find themselves with a little thinking to do when it comes to the rest of Zach Britton's season. The wheels have fallen off in the last month for Britton, and there are warning signs that he was not as ready for the big leagues as it seemed in April.
Britton suffered through one of the worst pitching performances in recent Orioles' history last Friday. He recorded only two outs, while giving up eight runs, all while looking utterly lost on the mound. His ERA continued its upward trend and cracked 4.00 for the first time all season.
After the start, Britton was sent to Double-A so as not to miss a start due to the All-Star break. It is widely assumed that Britton will be back with the Orioles by the end of the month.
Calling Zach Britton back from the minors would be the biggest mistake the Orioles could make this year.
Britton is not ready to be a major league pitcher. He does not have command of the strike zone, as evidenced by his walk rate of 3.4 BB/9. His lack of total command forces him to rely on one or two pitches and hurts his ability to go deep into games, averaging less than six innings per start.
With Britton's excellent first two months looking like a product of the league being unfamiliar with him, the Orioles need to learn from past experience with highly touted pitching prospects brought along too soon. They need look no further than Daniel Cabrera, who took the league by storm for a few months in 2004 before the rest of the league realized he couldn't throw strikes. Cabrera is out of baseball now.
Zach Britton will only benefit from a few months spent at Triple-A, learning how to command his secondary pitches, boosting his confidence. He has been given a taste of the majors. That taste should be enough to keep a fiery personality like Britton's motivated to get back on top.
This is quickly turning into a lost year for the Orioles. Permanently hindering the development of a potential future ace to pick up a few meaningless wins this season would be a terrible mistake.
For the sake of future seasons, and Zach Britton's career, MacPhail and Showalter need to be 100 percent certain that Britton is ready for major league hitters. He has shown flashes of brilliance this season, but those flashes are becoming fewer and further between.
It's not time to declare the handling of Zach Britton a complete failure just yet, but if Britton throws another pitch in the majors this year, the Orioles just might be headed that way.