While his teammates prepare for Opening Day over the next several weeks, Orioles closer Zach Britton will make his own steady strides at the Ed Smith Stadium complex recovering from a ruptured right Achilles tendon, an offseason injury that will likely delay the start of his final season before free agency for at least two months.
There’s no question Britton wants to get back as quickly as possible, as this might be the most important season of his career. But he promises he won’t rush back. It’s been nearly eight weeks since his surgery, he walked normally around the Orioles clubhouse Wednesday, and later this week he expects to begin throwing for the first time since his procedure, initially with a boot on his foot. Three days ago, Britton arrived in Sarasota, where his rehabilitation will continue by working in the facility’s underwater treadmill, which he hopes will accelerate his recovery.
But the organization’s longest-tenured player — Britton was drafted by the Orioles in 2006 at the age of 18 — will also have plenty of idle moments thinking about his future, whether this is his last season with the only team he’s known and whether he even lasts this season with the club if the team dangles him at the trade deadline as it did last season. Still, he’d prefer to talk about that than give incremental updates on his recovery during spring training.
“I’d rather those questions, absolutely, than this,” Britton said Wednesday morning in his first spring training media scrum. “I’m sure we’ll get around to that.”
Britton, who will make $12 million in his final season under club control, said he’d like to return to the Orioles, who over the past three years invested unprecedented financial commitments to re-sign Chris Davis, Darren O’Day and Mark Trumbo.
So Britton waits.
He indicated Wednesday that the Orioles haven’t engaged his agent, Scott Boras, in any extension talk. That’s also been the case with the Orioles’ other big-ticket pending free agents, Manny Machado and Adam Jones, this offseason.
“It would be nice [to be back],” Britton said. “I’ve been here since I was 18 years old. It would be really weird to be in another clubhouse in a different uniform,” Britton said. “I think my situation is the same as a lot of other guys. A lot of guys in here would like to be back. It’s just about the opportunity. A lot of us haven’t been presented with the opportunity to even consider coming back at this point. I’m sure there will be some talks at some point and we’ll go from there. But I don’t even have anything to consider at this point. I’m kind of in the same boat as a lot of guys.”
The Orioles nearly dealt Britton, 30, at last year’s nonwaiver trade deadline, but a trade with the Houston Astros was squashed in the 11th hour. Since then, Britton prepared for a future beyond Baltimore — both mentally and physically — selling his Sarasota-area home and spending the offseason training at Boras’ facility in California.
“That’s a tough question,” Britton said when asked whether he truly believes the Orioles want to keep him beyond this season. “I think they absolutely would like to have a lot of guys back. Whether or not that’s realistic contract-wise, I don’t know. But I think they would love to keep a lot of guys here who they’ve had here for a long time. I just don’t know where they see the organization going next year.”
Orioles manager Buck Showalter realizes that theme will follow this club throughout the season. With Britton, Machado, Jones and Brad Brach all heading to free agency — and Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette working in the final year of their contracts — uncertainty will continue to surround the team.
“I’m sure you could ask that question and get that answer from a number of guys,” Showalter said. “I think each guy treats it differently. How Manny handles it, how Adam handles it, how Zach handles it. … Brach, he’s a free agent at the end of the year, right?”
So for now, Britton will concentrate on getting back onto the field. Two seasons ago, he had one of the best seasons by a reliever in major league history, but now — for the second straight spring — he will be overcoming injury. Last year, he was slowed by an oblique injury, then landed on the disabled list with a flexor mass strain and ended the season sidelined with a knee injury.
While regaining strength in his foot, Britton will also have to get his arm strong for the season. The left-hander said the good news is that he won’t need a brace for his foot once he’s recovered. Like his forearm injury, doctors have told him once it’s healed, it shouldn’t bother him anymore. Initially, the steps will be slow to prevent a setback.
“I think with the boot, I’m probably a little more confident right now,” Britton said. “If he was like, ‘Just go ahead and throw without the boot on,’ I’d be a little hesitant, maybe run the risk of hurting myself. But we’re not going to be throwing that far for the first week, just to kind of get a feel for putting my weight over that front foot a little bit more, and then I’ll be able to get out of the boot after that with ankle tape.
“I’m not going to wear a brace, which is good news. The doctor said this isn’t something you need a brace [for]. Once it’s healed, it’s healed. You don’t need a brace. You don’t need to worry about anything you’re doing other than getting your strength back. I’m not as worried throwing in the boot as I would be out of it.”
Britton is still holding out hope he could return at some point in May, but doesn’t want to place a timetable on how long his recovery could take.
“He’s going to be around,” Showalter said. “He’s going to impact our club without pitching some, but has he mentioned the word of months? Has he mentioned that ‘M’ word?
“Zach’s an open book. You’re going to know what’s on his mind. … I love the fact that talking to him, I think he’s going to throw himself [out there] to make some other people’s path a little easier. I was walking out this morning to start and he was walking [around] and I said, ‘Hey, come on.’ ”
There’s no question Britton realizes how important this season is — both for the team and for him individually. But after going through injuries last spring, and he conceded he might have been too quick to return last season, he will focus on ensuring that he’s healthy for the remainder of the season once he returns. Getting weight back onto the foot will be a challenge, but also trusting his foot while doing routine things such as running off the mound will likely be a greater one.
“When I first started, I was scared to put weight on it, scared to walk on it, especially after the last time I put weight on it, I ruptured it. So I think I’ve gotten over a lot of those mental hurdles,” Britton said. “There’s still going to be some. Fielding my position is going to be a big challenge, I think, mentally for me. Physically, I’ll probably be ready to do it. Mentally, covering first and things like that.
“My understanding is the pitching part of it is one of the least stressful things I’m going to do on it. It’s the fielding the position and running to first base. That’s really going to stress the Achilles out, and be a test for me whenever I get around to that.”