Over the past ten seasons, the Baltimore Orioles have had four All-Star closers – B.J. Ryan (2005), George Sherrill (2008), Jim Johnson (2012), and Zach Britton (2015). The Orioles moved on from each of the first three at the perfect time. Ryan walked to the Toronto Blue Jays to take a ridiculously expensive five-year, $47 million contract and promptly unraveled; Sherrill was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers the season before he posted a 6.69 ERA in 65 appearances (side note, how the heck does a pitcher giving up 11.4 hits per nine innings get in 65 games); and Johnson was traded to the Oakland A’s after consecutive 50-save seasons. In his first season in Oakland, Johnson was an unmitigated disaster, pitching to a 7.14 ERA before being released, then latching on with the Detroit Tigers, and giving them a slightly less ugly 6.92 ERA.
Britton has shown no indication of slowing down, and there are some calling him the best closer in the league. He has a 1.80 ERA and 11.0 K/9. After being labeled a ticking time bomb last year because of his reliance on groundballs, Britton has proven everyone wrong by developing an ability to miss bats on a consistent basis in 2015. The groundball rate is still at nosebleed levels – 79.2 percent. Britton has given up a whopping total of 12 fly balls the entire season with only two leaving the yard. He doesn’t walk anyone either, and his .308 BABip shows that Britton is not getting lucky at a rate that would point to a massive correction in 2016.
The only real problem for the Orioles is that over the past two months, they have had very little reason to use Britton. When the team begins losing, the closer becomes the least valuable player on the team. You must have a lead for your closer to add value, otherwise, he’s merely logging meaningless innings to cap off another poor performance by the starting pitching. He’s Jonathan Papelbon on the Philadelphia Phillies, and he’s not very happy. Britton has saved only six games in August and September. Britton could become more valuable to the Orioles as trade bait.
Whether or not the Orioles should trade Britton hinges on the front office’s willingness to open their wallet for starting pitching this winter. The Orioles still have all the pieces in place to contend for the World Series except in the rotation. The Orioles have tried to get by with a cobbled together rotation the past four years, and it’s finally come back to bite them this year. A rotation made up of fly-ball pitchers – Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, and Wei-Yin Chen – is never going to win you a division when you must face the Blue Jays, New York Yankees, and Boston Red Sox 19 times each. The Orioles must upgrade at least one slot of their rotation from outside to have any hope of hanging near the top of the division in 2016, without even accounting for the potential exit of Chris Davis. Kevin Gausman has looked better in September, but still has not shown enough to be counted on as a number one starter next season.
There’s also the tricky area of predicting when Britton’s inevitable downslide begins. There are very few closers who can excel for an extended period of time. Nearly every single closer burns out spectacularly like an imploding supernova. It happened to each of the previous three Orioles All-Stars, and there’s a very good chance it could happen to Britton. Remember, Britton was a flop as a starting pitcher. He only found success as a reliever because the short bursts of pitching his new role required allowed him to pitch at a higher cruising velocity. Between the minor leagues and his tenure with the Orioles, Britton has already thrown 1,112.2 innings. Mariano Rivera threw only 600 more innings than Britton already has on his arm in a 23-year career. The early career innings that Britton gobbled up as a starting pitcher will inevitably begin to wear him down. Johnson was never as dominant as Britton, but when his sinker stopped sinking, he was done. Will Britton’s sinker move the same way as his velocity tails off? No one knows, but recent history should show the Orioles that when a sinkerball closer loses it, he loses it in a hurry.
If the Orioles do make at least one significant upgrade to their starting rotation this winter, Zach Britton maintains his value to the team. If not, they must consider selling high. Britton is not a free agent until after the 2018 season. A team that trades for him now would be guaranteed three more years of control. In that time, the Orioles could easily develop or acquire a new closer. Believe it or not, it’s not as difficult to develop a good closer as it would seem. The return in the trade would be more valuable than 35 saves on a 75-win team, without even considering the fact that at some point he could be worth substantially less due to declining performance. The Orioles will need to take a long hard look at the future of their franchise after the season, and that must include trading the closer when his value is at its peak.