Orioles closer Zach Britton will be out at least the next six months with a ruptured Achilles suffered while working out Tuesday in California. (Baltimore Sun video)
Zach Britton was running a routine 40-yard sprint during an offseason workout Tuesday when he pushed off on his right foot and felt a burst of pain shoot through his calf.
“There was pain everywhere,” Britton said. “It hurt so bad.”
Later in the day, Britton was diagnosed with a ruptured right Achilles tendon, an injury that will force him to be sidelined for the next six months. Britton, who missed most of the 2017 season with forearm and knee injuries, said he will undergo surgery Thursday and be aiming for a mid-June return.
“I’m beyond frustrated,” Britton said Wednesday in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. “I came out here and did physical therapy on the knee. Was done with that. I was throwing, getting ready to throw bullpens pretty soon. So I felt like I was right where I need to be. I was excited to get the season going because I actually felt like myself again, so it’s a gut punch. It’s hard to explain. It’s really frustrating.”
The loss of Britton for potentially most of the first half of next season sends ripples through an Orioles offseason that’s become complicated rather quickly.
Britton, who will turn 30 on Friday, was considered a potential trade chip this winter with him eligible to become a free agent after the coming season, but now that he’s injured, the team likely can’t trade either him or setup man Brad Brach, who would again fill in at closer as he did last season.
The Orioles bullpen has been its greatest strength, and last year the club overcame the absence of Britton for most of the first half as he was sidelined with a peculiar left forearm strain.
Now, the Orioles will be left hoping the two-time All-Star left-hander can come back in time to help them in the second half of the season, while Britton will have the opportunity to re-establish his free-agent market in that span.
Britton was limited to 38 appearances in 2017, converting 15 saves and posting a 2.89 ERA. That came one year after a historic season in which he converted all 47 of his save chances and had a 0.54 ERA, a major league relief record.
Britton had been spending the offseason working out at the Boras Sports Training Institute in Newport Beach, Calif. — the facility run by Britton’s agent, Scott Boras — focusing on putting this past season’s injuries behind him. His workouts were going well, and he said he was beginning to feel like his old self.
“I was pretty far along,” Britton said. “First week in November, I started doing everything. I was playing catch, feeling really good. Felt like I had found my arm slot. I was feeling back to how I was, back to before the injuries, so this one is tough. And for the doctors to say it was another freak accident, it was just the worst.”
Britton attempted to find a silver lining with the injury. His tendon detached from the muscle and not the bone, so no graft from his hamstring will be needed to re-attach it. And the injury is on his landing leg, which isn’t as serious as if it were in his push-off leg, and that should accelerate his recovery. The surgery will be performed Thursday by foot and ankle specialist Dr. Kenneth Jung at the Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.
“There’s a lot of positives in a crappy situation,” Britton said. “When I can put weight on it will really determine when I can get back, but as a pitcher, it’s not going to take me as long as, say, a position player or a football player or basketball player that has this injury. As a pitcher, I should be able to come back sooner. It’s not my push-off leg. That would have been a lot tougher, but this won’t be anything that affects performance. Once it heals, he said I’ll be good as new.”
An Orioles team that just two weeks ago was focused this offseason on building for one more run at the postseason with a group of pending free agents that includes Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Britton and Brach, and is also the final season of the contracts of executive vice president Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter, shifted its attention at last week’s winter meetings, where the club actively pursued dealing Machado.
While Machado has drawn major interest, the Orioles haven’t been overwhelmed by any offer. While it appeared in recent days that the Orioles were going to deal Machado, if a trade isn’t consummated by the end ot the week, they could pull him off the market, open the season with him and weigh their offers again at the nonwaiver trade deadline. Timing is key, because a Machado trade would affect the Orioles’ offseason greatly either way, and given the team’s desperate need for starting pitching, it has to attend to other priorities.
Britton had spent the past several offseasons working out at the Orioles’ spring training facility in Sarasota, Fla., where he owned a home. But shortly after a trade deadline deal with the Houston Astros broke down in the 11th hour, Britton sold his Sarasota home and this offseason was working out at Boras’ facility as well as with vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson, with whom he had worked in the past.
The Orioles have already tendered Britton a contract offer, so he’s still guaranteed a projected $12.2 million next season in his final year of arbitration eligibility.
“It’s going to be a grind, but the fact that it’s not like Tommy John [elbow reconstruction], where you’re out for the year, at least I can come back and pitch this year,” Britton said. “It’s nice to know that, so there’s something to keep my eyes on, something to work toward. The fact that its not going to affect me long term is the only positive I can think of.”