The news of the Orioles dealing veteran pitcher Jeremy Guthrie to Colorado for pitchers Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom has predictably been met with lukewarm reaction.
Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette traded the only mainstay of the Baltimore rotation over the last five years for a 29-year-old starter who was moved to the Rockies bullpen late last season and a soon-to-be 32-year-old reliever. Not only did the Orioles fail to add a potential prospect for the future — they do gain an extra year of control with Hammel over Guthrie, who will become a free agent after the 2012 season — but the trade cannot even be qualified as a salary dump with the two newcomers set to make a combined $8.35 million in 2012.
As perplexing as the move is in terms of short-term loss and minimal long-term gain, the Orioles are now looking at a starting rotation without the veteran leadership or innings the hard-luck Guthrie provided. Though Hammel threw 170 1/3 innings for the Rockies in 2011, left-hander Zach Britton logged the most innings of any returning Orioles pitcher after the 24-year-old completed 154 1/3 innings in his rookie season.
With Guthrie having thrown 200 or more innings in each of the last three seasons, the Orioles will need their young arms and newcomers to emerge quickly to prevent the bullpen from being overworked as it has seemingly every summer for the last decade-plus of baseball.
“It’s just another sign that the young guys have to step up,” Britton said to WNST.net on Monday. “We’ve got to look to each other. There’s not that veteran presence anymore in the rotation, so it’s time for us to step up and somebody step up to be a leader.”
The Orioles can only hope Britton is able to assume an increased role to help fill the void left behind by the durable Guthrie. The club would have faced major question marks in the starting rotation even if Guthrie had been retained, but it’s now anyone’s guess who will even take the ball for manager Buck Showalter on Opening Day let alone which pitchers will grab the fourth and fifth slots in the starting rotation.
Showing impressive poise and maturity in his rookie season, Britton sees no reason why young pitchers such as himself and Jake Arrieta or veteran additions like Hammel or Taiwanese southpaw Wei-Yin Chen shouldn’t be aiming to take the hill on the first day of the regular season.
“To what we have on the roster right now, I think that should be the goal for everybody,” Britton said. “It’s definitely my goal to go in there and pitch well and that’d be nice to get that Opening Day nod.”
Considered a long shot for the starting rotation entering spring training a year ago, Britton may now represent the surest candidate the Orioles possess among a collection of unproven young arms, journeymen, and two additions from the Far East.
However, it’s difficult to overlook Britton’s demotion to the minor leagues last July while maintaining confidence that the left-hander is ready to become the Orioles’ de facto ace. After starting his first season with a 7-3 record and a 2.35 earned run average over his first 10 starts, Britton finished the year with an 11-11 record and a 4.61 ERA while often struggling with command of his four pitches.
“I made the adjustments toward the end that I needed to — maybe not as quickly or as well as I should have – but I think that’s progress for me,” said Britton, who finished with 97 strikeouts against 62 walks last season. “At least I made the adjustments and didn’t just keep sticking to what I was doing that wasn’t working.”
After a year of encountering — and sometimes getting knocked around by — the imposing lineups of the American League East, Britton feels more comfortable as he prepares for his second season in the big leagues and better understands the level of focus and performance needed to be successful.
While choosing not to focus on wins and other statistics out of his control, Britton is keeping it simple when it comes to expectations for 2012, but reaching his goals would be a welcome sight for a rotation with far more question marks than exclamation points as spring training quickly approaches.
“The two main goals for me are just to be healthy the whole season and get over that 200-inning mark,” said Britton, who believes the remaining stats will take care of themselves should those scenarios come to fruition. “I think that’s a huge barometer of how well you’re throwing. If you can throw 200 innings in a season, you’re doing something right.”
With Guthrie no longer around to mentor the younger pitchers on the roster, Britton said they will lean on each other for support and pointed to his spirited relationship with Arrieta, who hopes to rebound from a season cut short due to elbow surgery.
The two are close in the clubhouse and are constantly competing, whether on the diamond or in the weight room.
“He has a good outing, I want to go out there and top that; I have a good outing, he wants to go out and top that,” Britton said. “You always have that competition where if you have a bad outing, we’re ragging on each other a little bit. It’s good to have that.”
After trading away their safest commodity in the starting rotation, the Orioles can only pray that competition goes a long way in 2012.
To hear the entire interview with Britton, visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault right here.