The Orioles continued their rebuild Tuesday night, trading closer Zach Britton to the American League East-rival New York Yankees in exchange for three pitching prospects.
The package the Orioles will receive is anchored by right-handed pitching prospect Dillon Tate, who was scratched from his scheduled start for Double-A Trenton on Tuesday. Tate, 24, is the Yankees’ sixth-ranked prospect by Baseball America and No. 9 on MLB Pipeline’s Yankees top prospects list.
The Orioles also received two Triple-A pitchers — right-handed reliever Cody Carroll, 25, and left-handed starter Josh Rogers, 24. Tate has been assigned to Double-A Bowie, while Carroll and Rogers will report to Triple-A Norfolk.
Moving Britton, the organization’s longest-tenured player after being drafted by the team in 2006, is the latest step in the Orioles’ fast-moving rebuild in the days before the nonwaiver trade deadline. The Orioles traded franchise cornerstone Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday for a five-player package centered around 21-year-old Cuban outfielder Yusniel Díaz.
Britton said he first learned about a possible trade during a rain delay in the Orioles’ 7-6 win over the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night.
“We came in for the rain delay and obviously I looked at my phone,” Britton said. “It had just blown up with missed calls and texts. But there was nothing official at the time. They were still going through some stuff, so not until the game was over did I talk to [manager] Buck [Showalter] and [executive vice president] Dan [Duquette], and they kind of let me know what was going on. When it became official, they let me know. I’ve already spoken to [Yankees general manager Brian] Cashman and [Yankees manager Aaron] Boone, so it was good to talk to them.”
Britton, a two-time All-Star who has spent his entire eight-year major league career with the Orioles, said it will be “weird” to wear a different uniform, let alone one of a division rival.
“Been here for 12 years, black and orange,” Britton said. “Down in the bullpen I didn’t know it was official but I was just running through flying to [former Orioles rookie affiliate] Bluefield and [longtime Bluefield Orioles coach] Lenny [Johnston] picking me up at the airport and being 18, first time away from home. And then hitting Delmarva, Frederick, Bowie, Norfolk, every stop along the way. All of the coaches that helped me get to this point. It’s been crazy. It’s been a great 12 years. There are so many things from baseball to getting married to having kids. It all happened with this organization, so it will forever be in my heart and hopefully it’s not the last time I play here. Hopefully, sometime down the road I can come back here and maybe finish it out.”
With the Orioles leading 7-5 entering the ninth inning Tuesday night — and the trade not official at that time — Showalter brought in Brad Brach in a save situation instead of Britton.
“There’s some things going on, and I thought it was in the best interest of Zach and the organization not to pitch him in that situation,” Showalter said after the game. “It wasn’t weather related. Again, it’s like the other day when we’re talking about Manny coming out. What are you telling the other eight players? It’s tough.”
In trading Machado and Britton, the Orioles received a total of eight minor leaguers, including four pitchers, all of whom are at the Double-A level or higher. And the surplus of arms provides high minor league level pitching depth the Orioles’ farm system lacked to bridge to the promising group of pitching prospects the organization has at the High-A and Low-A levels.
Making a major trade with the Yankees marks a different direction in philosophy. The Orioles have steered away from deals with division rivals — the 2014 trade of left-handed pitching prospect Eduardo Rodríguez to the Red Sox for lockdown left-handed reliever Andrew Miller was an exception. But since the Orioles are long out of contention and Britton is a pending free agent, the Orioles jumped at the opportunity to raid the Yankees’ talent-rich farm system.
The deal marks the Orioles’ first pre-deadline, player-for-player trade with the Yankees in nearly three decades. On July 20, 1989, the Orioles acquired outfielder Stan Jefferson from the Yankees for pitcher John Habyan. The Orioles have acquired players from the Yankees for cash or international bonus slots, including recent deals for left-handed reliever Richard Bleier and right-handed starter Yefry Ramírez.
“He’s going to a good organization,” Duquette said. “Of course, they really wanted him to bolster their run to the playoffs. They got a good one, and we really appreciate the work Zach did for us over the years. He came up and got off to a great start to his career and then became one of the dominant closers in the league. Had a great year a couple of years ago. I don’t know how you can have a better year than he had a couple of years ago. He was just terrific.”
Even though Britton will test free agency this offseason, trading a career-long Oriole such as him to the division-rival Yankees — who the Orioles face nine more times this season — is a polarizing move. The move single-handedly made the Yankees bullpen one of the best assembled in recent years and primed it for the postseason.
“I feel for Zach, because he’s a very smart young man and he’d like to know where he and his family are going for the next two months. But it’s tough,” Showalter said before the trade was finalized. “The last few days have been tough, and especially, I’m sitting there in the dugout and I see they show the playoff game against Detroit [in 2014]. It’s tough on some of us older guys.
“If and when it happens, somebody’s going to get a very special pitcher, and a special young man.”
The move also continues to change the identity of the Orioles roster, which will undergo an overhaul in the coming weeks and months.
“I think about it going all the way back to 2009,” catcher Caleb Joseph said last week. “I’ve been playing baseball with Zach Britton since 2009, for pretty much the last decade. So it would make for an extremely odd situation, especially to see him in a different uniform would be really odd for me.”
Tate was the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft, selected by the Texas Rangers out of UC-Santa Barbara and then traded to the Yankees with two other prospects for Carlos Beltrán. Tate is 5-2 with a 3.38 ERA with Double-A Trenton, allowing just 67 hits over 82 2/3 innings while posting three times more strikeouts (75) than walks (25).
“I guess he's probably the headliner — the most publicized player that we're picking up in this deal,” Duquette said. “He's having a good year. He's really improved his control and we see him as a potential starting pitcher for us in the future.”
The Orioles believe Carroll, who has a 2.38 ERA in 32 relief appearances and has 55 strikeouts and 18 walks over 41 2/3 innings this season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, could be a major league bullpen piece next season. He has converted nine of 12 save opportunities.
“Actually, in the near term Cody Carroll is having an excellent year at Triple-A with the Yanks,” Duquette said. “He pitched in the Triple-A All-Star Game. He's got a really good strikeout record. Big, strong kid with two really good pitches — a fastball with good velocity and he's got a good slider that the lefties and the righties have trouble with.”
Rogers, 24, is 6-8 with a 3.95 in 19 games with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and owns a career 3.16 ERA and an impressive 1.8 walks per nine innings in parts of four minor league seasons.
“We were looking to acquire a left-handed starter and we got one in Josh Rogers,” Duquette said. “And two right-handers, hopefully a back-end reliever and potentially a starting pitcher. That should add to the depth of the organization and hopefully they'll be players that we can rely upon in years to come.”
The Orioles’ trade discussions on Britton accelerated Tuesday, with the Yankees and Houston Astros emerging as front runners to acquire the two-time All-Star. The Arizona Diamondbacks were also in discussions with the Orioles as of Tuesday, but by late Tuesday night, an agreement with the Yankees had been made.
As Britton began to show his old form of 2016, when he had one of the most dominant seasons of any reliever, the interest in him grew from contenders looking to bolster their bullpens. Besides the Yankees, Astros and Diamondbacks, the Orioles were in discussions with the Red Sox, Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies regarding Britton.
Britton entered Tuesday’s game against the Red Sox having pitched eight straight scoreless outings while holding hitters to a .125 batting average over that span and showing increased velocity.
Meanwhile, New York acquiring Britton makes the majors’ best bullpen even better. The Yankees’ 2.75 bullpen ERA entering Tuesday is No. 1 in baseball, and Britton and his power sinker will add another dynamic to a late-inning mix that also includes power arms Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, David Robertson and Chad Green.
“If you have a chance to chase a World Series ring, which obviously they do, it could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Britton said of joining the Yankees.
The Astros had also long coveted Britton, and the Orioles were close to moving Britton to Houston as last year’s trade deadline, but the deal fell apart in the 11th hour. The Astros went on to beat the Yankees in the AL Championship Series and beat the Dodgers in the World Series.
Now that the Orioles have moved both Britton and Machado, the focus turns to the team’s other two pending free agents, center fielder Adam Jones and Brad Brach.
The Orioles have also received interest in controllable players such as second baseman Jonathan Schoop, right-hander Kevin Gausman, right-hander Dylan Bundy and right-handed reliever Mychal Givens. While it’s unclear whether the Orioles would be willing to trade those pieces, they are listening to offers.
Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.