BALTIMORE — The Orioles cleared the final real hurdle for their anticipated sell-off with the activation of two-time All-Star closer Zach Britton from the disabled list on Monday.
There are no more excuses for waiting to dive into the trade market with the deadline now seven weeks away.
The Memorial Day checkpoint came and went two weeks ago with Baltimore hopelessly in last place. The amateur draft is in the books, removing that important task from the ledger. And now Britton has returned less than six months after tearing his right Achilles tendon, giving him several weeks to rebuild his trade value that’s taken a hit over the last 14 months because of injuries.
Opposing scouts were already watching the left-hander during his five-game minor-league rehab assignment, which concluded with a 1.69 ERA and six strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings. The Orioles now hope Britton resembles the closer who recorded 120 saves and a 1.38 ERA from 2014-2016 to make him that much more attractive to contending clubs aiming to bolster their bullpen.
“Every time I get the ball, pitch well and help the team,” said Britton, who’s trying his best not to view his return as an audition for other teams. “Regardless of our standing or the trade discussions, the mindset’s just going to be to go out there and pitch well.”
Manager Buck Showalter said he’d prefer not throwing Britton into a save situation immediately, but the organization knows opposing teams will want to see how he handles high-leverage situations sooner than later. Pitching effectively in minor-league games was an important step, but there’s no simulating the pressure and adrenaline of the ninth inning of a major league game. Hopefully the reeling Orioles can scrounge together enough save chances to help him further prove his worth over the next few weeks.
Britton’s return coincided with the absence of shortstop Manny Machado, who was out for the series opener against Boston due to illness. Machado not being in the lineup for the first time all season initially sparked fan chatter about a potential trade before Showalter confirmed the star infielder was dealing with the same bug that sidelined third baseman Danny Valencia in Toronto on Sunday.
Not seeing Machado batting third and playing shortstop Monday previewed the reality the Orioles are facing at some point in the near future.
“I’d be less than frank if I said that I hadn’t already thought about that,” Showalter said. “You should’ve already thought about it. You should think about all guys. If somebody’s hurt, what’s your ‘what if?’ There’s not anybody on the horizon or maybe in baseball that’s a ‘what if’ that’s available like Manny. I don’t need a reminder of watching it tonight.”
Entering Monday 26 games below .500 and 24 1/2 games out of first place in the American League East, the Orioles imagining how much worse it could get without their best player isn’t pleasant to say the least.
But it will be their reality all too soon.