The Orioles have been reluctant to offer many details regarding the next step for Zach Britton, but the team is preparing for its All-Star closer to miss the next 45 to 60 days, according to an industry source.
The source said the Orioles hope Britton, who was placed on the disabled list for the second time this season Saturday with a recurring discomfort in his left forearm, can return by the All-Star break in mid-July.
Britton went to the West Coast on Monday to visit orthopedist Dr. Neal ElAttrache, where he received an MRI that revealed less swelling than the one he received when the reliever returned to the disabled list Saturday. He then reported to the spring training complex in Sarasota, Fla., where he also owns a home, and will be shut down for about 10 days to ensure the forearm muscle has completely healed before he resumes throwing.
“We’re going to have to have a little bit more patience than we had the first time,” executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said. “I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes. He’s going to take a little more time, obviously. So, he’s got a rest period — an enforced rest period, then after that if he’s feeling better, he can start throwing. Then he can start throwing off the mound, then he can start doing games. We’ll see how things come along.”
Britton said Tuesday that he never received a definitive time frame for a return because his injury is one that isn't common -- especially among pitchers -- and will be dictated by how he feels once he resumes throwing.
"The only time frame that was handed out from a day standpoint was, ‘Let’s wait about another 10 days or so and then start a throwing progression,’ " Britton said. "So that would be about 14 or 15 days of not throwing since the injury, which is a little longer than what I had before. … Then I’d start a throwing progression to get back into games. When it came to that time frame, where were no days thrown out. There was no 60 days or anything like that. He said a lot of that depends on how you feel."
Britton likened the injury to a hamstring strain, where recoveries vary on how well the muscle heals and not testing it too soon.
"You don't want to come back too soon, because like with a hamstring, when you sprint for the first time and you're not ready, you're going to re-injure it," Britton said. "So if I go out on a mound and go max effort and I'm not ready, you're going to reinjure it. That's kind of what I did when I felt I was ready and I wasn't. ... So what we're trying to do is give myself some cushion where when I feel good, we can give myself some time so we know for sure it's completely gone."
Britton reaffirmed that the injury is not a major one. He said three tests -- two MRIs and an X-ray -- all have concluded that the injury is purely muscular and there is no structural damage.
“Talking to the doctor, it’s all laid out,” Showalter said. “In fact, I was just reading the mail from [head athletic trainer] Richie [Bancells] per the doctors, our doctors, the people he’s seen, they’re all in agreement with the protocol and the way the program is going to work down in Sarasota.”
Britton went on the disabled list April 16 after feeling discomfort in the forearm area while throwing a breaking ball in an outing in Toronto two days earlier. He returned to the active roster 16 days later after two minor league rehabilitation outings, but was placed on the disabled list again after making just two appearances last week in Boston.
Britton, 29, had one of the top seasons of all time for a closer last season, converting all 47 save opportunities while posting a 0.54 ERA, which was the lowest in major league history for pitchers with at least 50 innings. Britton, who also finished fourth in American League Cy Young Award voting, had 43 straight relief appearances without allowing an earned run from May 5 to August 22.
Britton was able to dominate opponents mainly by relying on one pitch. He threw his heavy sinker 92.2 percent of the time last year, eliciting an unheard-of 79.1 percent ground-ball rate.
“We were a little spoiled last year with the year that Zach had, where he converted every save into a win,” Duquette said. “He converted every save opportunity into a win.”
Britton hasn’t had the same success this season. Even though he converted all five save opportunities, he dodged damage in many of them, allowing 16 base runners (12 hits and four walks) in seven innings. His spring training was also slowed by a mild oblique injury, and he didn't make his Grapefruit League debut until March 14 and pitched just 5 1/3 Grapefruit League innings (he did build his innings in minor league games).
The Orioles are still convinced that no structural damage exists – multiple MRIs have shown that – and though forearm strains are often connected to elbow damage, Britton’s elbow is secure.
Britton’s problem lies in the lower part of his forearm – closer to the wrist than the elbow – and the while the club believes the pressure he puts on the grip on his pitches could have something to do with the discomfort he’s been feeling, it is such a rare injury for a pitcher to have that there's not much track record as to the root of the injury.
Now, the Orioles must put together a new plan for the ninth inning in Britton’s absence, and Duquette will likely look internally for the solution.
“Maybe somebody will step up,” Duquette said. “We have some experience in the bullpen, and we do have some complementary pitchers. It’s hard to replace the pitcher with the best sinker in the game, obviously. Zach’s a uniquely talented pitcher. I think we have some experience in the bullpen that should be able to help us win some games, like they did last night. It’s important to win the game that you’re supposed to win.”
Setup man Brad Brach has been the team’s primary closer in Britton’s absence, converting eight of nine save opportunities. Brach didn’t allow a run in his first 11 appearances this season spanning 12 innings, but he's given up five runs over his past seven appearances.
Showalter said the team will rely on matchups and rest in deciding who will receive save opportunities.
“We’ve already done that some,” Showalter said. “A lot depends on health, too, and how we feel they are physically. I’m hoping Mychal gets into that mix and Donnie Hart might close out a game for us. I’m hoping another guy steps forward with the potential of that. This is kind of kind of a matchup thing and a health thing. I’m not ever going to broadcast who is not available, but we’re going to continue to monitor that really closely.”
Duquette said he’s confident the team has the internal pieces to overcome Britton’s extended absence.
“Brad Brach has the pitches,” Duquette said. “Mychal Givens has taken on more responsibility. He has good talent — he has a lot of assets to help the team. Donnie Hart is establishing himself in his role. So, it’ll be up to the club to find another reliever. Hopefully, we can do it. We have some candidates, but obviously we don’t have a sinkerballer like Zach Britton.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Jon Meoli contributed to this article.