— These days Zach Britton can speak confidently about some of the tough times he's been through over the past two years. The left-hander admits that there were times when he felt he lost the confidence of his Orioles teammates when he was on the mound.
Simply put, the results weren't there. And that led his mind to become scrambled with a lot of questions and few answers.
"I've been through some stuff the past two years," Britton said. "But I try not to even think about that stuff anymore and just focus on what I have to do to be successful here."
Britton — now 26 — is no longer a prospect. More importantly, he's out of minor league options, so it's either make the major league roster this spring or a likely departure from the Orioles knowing that his potential was never realized here.
But early reviews on Britton are that he has among the best stuff of all the pitchers in major league camp. He appears to be fully healthy for the first time since the end of his rookie season in 2011. His trademark sinker looks sharp and in his first Grapefruit League appearance on Friday, his velocity sat at 93 mph, several ticks higher than the high 80s he brought into camp last season.
"I think he's a little more relaxed," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "I think he knows that it's kind of a year when everybody has to show their cards and I think that relaxes a lot of people. We'll see down here, but he seems to be a little more, not resigned, but 'OK, nothing's going to change about how I go about it, but I know the opportunity at some point for us or somebody else is going to be there.' I think he's a little more relaxed about it, but he's still got to perform."
"I think Zach knows there's a good chance he's going to be pitching for someone in the big leagues this year," Showalter said. "We hope it's us."
Britton entered the spring as one of a cavalcade of candidates competing for the final rotation spot, but the Orioles' signing of right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez means that starters are currently slotted into five different spots.
But Showalter has said a rotation spot can still be won. If Britton doesn't earn a spot, he would likely have an opportunity to get a spot as a long reliever because the club doesn't want to risk losing him.
"I think it's the same mindset," Britton said. "I want a spot in the rotation and if that's not available or if that's not the case, then I want to earn a spot in the bullpen. We have a really good team. I have a lot of really good friends here. This is where I want to be, so I'm going to do everything in my power on the field to earn a spot, whether it's in the bullpen of the rotation rather than having the opportunity to go somewhere else."
If the consolation prize is a bullpen job, Britton said, he will embrace the role.
"It's a big league job. I think one thing that [club executive] Brady [Anderson] has preached to us. … He wants us to focus on not just staying in the big leagues. It's about being the best. And that's something that you lose track of when you're injured and you're struggling," Britton said. "I think it's just thinking, 'If I'm in the bullpen, I'm going to be the best there and I'm going to earn my way back into the rotation.'"
All Britton has to do is look around him for examples of success. When right-hander Chris Tillman was out of options, he became a front-line starter and won 16 games last season. Right-hander Miguel Gonzalez emerged from obscurity in 2012 and worked from a long-relief role before fighting his way into the starting rotation. Even though left-hander Brian Matusz still hopes his future is as a starter, he's developed into the team's lockdown situational lefty relief arm.
Britton's big league career started off strong during his rookie season in 2011, winning five of his first six decisions and pitching to a 2.89 ERA over his first 10 starts, but he landed on the disabled list with a strained left shoulder in August.
Those problems continued the next spring training when he had shoulder inflammation that prompted a visit to Dr. James Andrews and a subsequent platelet-rich plasma injection. That slowed his 2012 season — even though he put together a second-half four-game span in which he was 4-0 with a 0.92 ERA, which he said was his best run in his career, despite not being fully healthy. While he competed for a rotation spot last spring, he began the season in Triple-A Norfolk and posted a 5.45 ERA in seven big league starts.
Britton said things began to change for him during instructional league at the end of last season, when Norfolk pitching coach Mike Griffin told him he started to see flashes of the 2010 Triple-A version of Britton.
In the offseason, he spent his second straight offseason working with Anderson in Southern California. Feeling as healthy as he had been during his rookie year, Britton was encouraged by Anderson to resume a weighted ball program that he has done since high school but abandoned following his shoulder problems.
"Brady told me, 'Do whatever you did when you were successful and fall back on that,'" said Britton who did the routine from late November through December. "I definitely felt a difference with my arm and my arm action and arm speed."
So did Gonzalez, a good friend of Britton's who was his training and throwing partner in the offseason.
"I see more consistency and more control," Gonzalez said. "He knows his body a little bit better now. He worked out hard this offseason, so I think that's going to help him out. He has no options so it's either he's on our team or not, he's going somewhere else, but we want him here. He looks a lot better than he did last year.
"I think he's ready to go. Mentally he's right there. He knows what he has to do."
Anderson said there was more urgency to Britton's workouts — he worked at a quicker pace and threw off the mound earlier. Britton said Anderson has also helped him focus on only what he can control.
"He's going to look different this year," Anderson said. "Zach needs to make the team, so he's got to be ready."
And Britton knows this is an important time for him to show the organization that he is ready to take the next step and show some consistency.
"I think that it's a big spring for me definitely, because at some point you've got to show that you can be consistent," Britton said. "You've got to start showing that at some point. They're not always going to wait around, especially when you're out of options. It's a chance to show that I'm healthy and that my stuff is where I need it to be and that I'm making adjustments with my sinker and my breaking ball that I've needed to make.
"I try not to look at this spring as make-or-break, though," he added. "When you do that, it's really tough to relax and try to pitch. You're thinking you have to be perfect."
For the first time since 2011, Britton said he's not worrying about his arm, which he said will allow him to better concentrate on winning a roster spot.
"Any time you can take your mind set off how you feel physically — or thinking 'Is my arm hurting?' or 'Is it going to hurt after this pitch?' or 'How is it going to feel today?' and totally erase that from your brain, then your confidence level is through the roof, especially coming into spring training knowing that you need to be your best to win a spot on the team. Just to have that off my shoulders now and finally feel that I'm pretty close to where I used to be and that I have time in spring training to get where I want to be is a great feeling."
Britton has been a career-long Oriole and he knows that this is his time to meet his potential.
"I want to be in the rotation helping them win games in the postseason," Britton said. "That's the ultimate goal, being a guy that your teammates trust out there and not somebody who in the past they've probably been, 'Oh boy, we don't know what we're going to get.' We have such a good group of guys that they'd never tell you that. … You want to be a guy like Tillman or Miguel, guys who you know when they're on the bump you have a good chance to win."
"This is where I want to be," he said. "I think I can help this team win, so hopefully I can pitch well enough to do that in some capacity."
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