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What's next for Britton? Orioles' options with injured closer are limited

Closer Zach Britton, who is out until at least June after rupturing his right Achilles tendon Tuesday, sounds like a player who doesn’t know what his immediate future with the Orioles holds.

He was already prepared for a possible move. Britton had been one of the club’s biggest trade chips — along with third baseman Manny Machado — that could help set the Orioles’ future up beyond the 2018 season, when Machado, Britton, Adam Jones and Brad Brach are all eligible for free agency.

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But after he went down while running sprints during an offseason workout at the Boras Sports Training Institute in Newport Beach, Calif., his value as an offseason trade chip became virtually nil. For now, Britton — who will have surgery Thursday in Los Angeles — won’t help the Orioles on the field or at the negotiating table with potential trade partners.

And for a pitcher who can easily return to the form that made him one of the best closers in the game, and a big piece of the Orioles’ winning formula both on the field and in the clubhouse, his immediate future with the team is now in question.

Britton is entering his final year of four years of arbitration eligibility as a Super Two qualifier, and before his injury, he was projected to make $12.2 million through the process. Even though the left-hander was poised for free agency, the Orioles never blinked at tendering him a contract next month because he would have value as either the team’s closer in 2018 or as a trade chip.

There’s been some speculation that the Orioles could release Britton and be responsible for only 30 days of salary as termination pay. Since he’s been tendered a contract offer, but hasn’t negotiated a deal or had his salary decided by an arbitration hearing, that 30 days of pay would be prorated from last year’s $11.4 million, which would be roughly $1.8 million.

Speaking with Britton on Wednesday as he was still trying to wrap his head around the injury and its ramifications, he sounded like a player prepared to be released.

“It would be a kind of [terrible] way to end my time with the Orioles,” Britton said of the prospect that he might have thrown his last pitch in the team’s uniform. “I’ve been there so long and I have so many good memories. Yeah, that would be a tough way to kind of go out with the team. Hopefully, I’m still there, and if not, you know, I’ll just kind of take it as it comes. I’m sure I’ll talk with those guys soon after the surgery.”

However, while Section 9 of the Major League Baseball collective bargaining agreement states that teams can release players in the offseason and be responsible for only 30 days pay, they can do so only if the player has shown the “failure to exhibit sufficient skill or competitive ability.” That’s pretty vague, and an injury would fall under that language.

But further in that section, the CBA details that a player who is released from his contract “due to a disability resulting directly from injury sustained in the course and within the scope of his employment under his contract” is entitled to receive the unpaid balance of the entire contract, which would again default to last year’s contract since 2018’s deal has yet to be negotiated.

So basically, according to that language, as long as Britton was injured while doing baseball-related activities that were sanctioned by the team — which in this case they were — he would be eligible to receive his full salary. If he injured himself while participating in activities not under the team’s recommendation — for example, playing basketball — the team could release him and he’d be owed only 30 days of pay.

It’s a clause in the CBA that protects a player who suffers a freak injury like Britton’s, but it also puts the team in a bind, especially with a player who will make as much money as he does.

Under that understanding, the Orioles have little choice but to keep Britton under contract, see him through his rehabilitation, and hope he returns in June and can increase his trade stock before the nonwaiver trade deadline at the end of July, when contenders will be searching for lockdown late-inning arms. Whether he’d have enough time to establish that market would depend on how quickly he returned and how well he pitched over what would be no more than six weeks.

If they feel Britton, who turns 30 on Friday, is a big part of their future, the Orioles could attempt to engage him in extension talks next month, offering to buy out this season in an effort to keep him for the long haul. But that’s not something the Orioles typically do, and Britton’s agent, Scott Boras, is always eager to allow his clients to test free agency.

After surgery, Britton said he will likely be in a boot for four weeks before he can begin rehabbing his Achilles, but because he’s a pitcher, the recovery would take less time than if he were a position player, who would need to run more, or a basketball or football player, who would need to cut and jump regularly and add more pressure on the foot.

The good news for Britton is that he’s been told he will pitch sometime this season, and that the injury isn’t expected to affect his performance once he heals. While no player on the roster has been in the organization longer than Britton, the Orioles nearly traded him to the Houston Astros at this year’s nonwaiver deadline, and the rumors that swirled around him then allowed him to prepare mentally for not being an Oriole.

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“Not too many guys stay in the same organization anymore,” Britton said. “I’ve never had any other cleats other than black and orange. It would just be weird. I’ve had a chance to think about it a lot. But I guess I’ll know my fate fairly soon.”

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