Zach Britton started to say his goodbyes to teammates tonight during the rain delay, his trade to the Yankees not official but the certainty undeniable. He checked his cell phone and knew exactly what was transpiring.
Standing at his locker late tonight, his eyes reddened, Britton tried to sum up the feelings coursing through him after meeting with manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette. He’s leaving the organization that drafted him in the third round in 2006 and allowed him to climb each rung of the ladder until making his major league debut five years later and evolving into an All-Star closer.
The finality hit him harder than any lineup.
“We came in for the rain delay and, obviously, I looked at my phone,” he said following tonight’s 7-6 win over the Red Sox and the trade that brought pitchers Dillon Tate, Josh Rogers and Cody Carroll to the Orioles. “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 Buck and Dan and they kind of let me know what was going on. When it became official, they let me know. I’ve already spoken to (Brian) Cashman and (Aaron) Boone, so it was good to talk to them.
“Weird. Been here for 12 years, black and orange. Down in the bullpen, I didn’t know it was official, but I was just running through flying to Bluefield and Lenny Johnson 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.”
Britton goes from a team with the worst record in baseball to one that’s currently in second place in the division. Meanwhile, the Orioles have dived head-first into their rebuild by trading Manny Machado to the Dodgers for five minor leaguers, and Britton to the Yankees for three.
“I know what the feeling’s like when you’re a winning ballclub and you get in that clubhouse, you can feel it,” Britton said. “Hopefully, I can step right in and do a good job.”
Britton underwent surgery in December to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon, but he came back in June and made himself a prime trade chip with eight consecutive scoreless appearances before the deal. His velocity is back up to 95-97 mph and the movement on his sinker gained high marks from scouts who tracked him. He also eliminated any concerns about his health.
The 27-minute delay tonight allowed Britton to leave and return to the bullpen, and also make certain that he spoke with everyone.
“It kind of all happened the right way with the weather delay. A lot of teammates kind of had texts, too,” he said. “I got to say goodbye to everybody. I got to talk to everyone. Spoke with Buck. Talked to (Brian) Ebel. All the guys.
“Me and Ebel, we kind of sat down. We went through a lot of stuff. I’m still eight months removed from surgery. I don’t know if people realize the work he put in to get me to this point. It’s pretty crazy that I was able to get back to the point of being able to get traded, in all honesty. So, I just thanked him for everything because he put a lot of work in.”
Emotions collided within Britton. The excitement of joining a contender prior to free agency up against a sadness that he shared with the media who surroundeded him.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “I don’t know anything other than this organization. A lot of friends. Me and Caleb (Joseph) were talking. I’ve played with Caleb since 2008. We’re not just teammates. We’re really good friends. That’s the case with a lot of guys in here. So, I’m definitely sad to be leaving.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to win some games again, but it’s never going to be easy coming back here and playing against these guys, especially.”
The Orioles travel to the Bronx next week for a two-game series that starts Tuesday on the non-waiver trade deadline. The Yankees return to Camden Yards for three games Aug. 24-26.
“Really weird,” he said. “I’ve never played against these guys before. Maybe a few guys. It’ll be weird to be wearing the Yankee uniform and competing with the Orioles.”
Britton joins a stacked bullpen that also includes Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, David Robertson, Chad Green and Jonathan Holder. He won’t pout if he isn’t closing.
“I think you’ve got to go into a new team and earn your role, especially with the guys they have over there,” he said. “They’ve got some guys who are doing really well. I’m just going to try to fit in and earn any role that’s given to me. I haven’t spoken to them about role. I’m sure we’ll have that conversation at some point. Right now, I’m just excited to get on a winning team and, hopefully, do some good things.
“If you have a chance to chase a World Series ring, which obviously they do, it could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The same bittersweet feeling that came to Duquette after trading Machado resurfaced tonight.
“Zach Britton, personally I love the kid,” he said. “My first Winter Meetings was down in Texas. I got a call in my room. He said, ‘This is Zach Britton.’ I said to John Stockstill, ‘John, who’s Zach Britton?’ He said, ‘He’s one of our pitchers. He had a great year this year.’ Zach called me up and he said, ‘I want to come over and introduce myself to you,’ which I really appreciated. Not only have the good sense to come over and say hello, he really welcomed me to the organization that he grew up in, and we’re going to miss him, his family.
“Great family and we wish them a lot of luck with the Yankees. He’s going to a good organization. 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.”
Britton went 47-for-47 in save chances in 2016 and placed fourth in American League Cy Young voting. He was 18-17 with a 4.86 ERA and 1.524 WHIP in 46 starts, but 12-5 with 139 saves, a 1.69 ERA and 1.024 WHIP in 260 relief appearances.
“I feel for Zach,” manager Buck Showalter said before the trade was announced. “He’d like to know where he and his family are going for the next two months. The last few days have been tough. Especially when I’m sitting in the dugout and I see that they showed the playoff game against Detroit, tough especially for us older guys.
“If and when it happens, somebody’s going to get a very special pitcher and special young man.”
The Orioles assigned Tate to Double-A Bowie and Rogers and Carroll to Triple-A Norfolk. They’ll need a replacement for Britton on the 25-man roster.
All three players must be protected from the Rule 5 draft before the Winter Meetings.
“The Orioles continue our rebuild of the roster,” Duquette said. “We sent Zach Britton to the Yankees and we acquired three pitchers, we hope, that can help us. Actually, in the near term, Cody Carroll is having an excellent year with the Yanks. He pitched in the Triple-A All-Star Game and has 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 the lefties and the righties have trouble with.
“Dillon Tate is a top draft pick. I guess he’s probably the headliner, or the most publicized player that we’re picking up in this deal. Drafted No. 4 overall by Texas, sent to the Yankees in the (Carlos) Beltran trade. He’s currently pitching for Trenton in the Eastern League. He’s having a good year. He’s improved his control. We see him as a potential starting pitcher for us in the future.
“And Josh Rogers, a left-hander from the University of Louisville, he’s having a good year at Triple-A. He can compete as a potential starter, hopefully next year in our rotation. So, we got three pitchers. We were looking to acquire a left-handed starter and we got one in Josh Rogers, and two right-handers, hopefully a back-end reliever and a starting pitcher. So, that should add to the depth of the organization and, hopefully, they’re players we can rely on for years to come.”
The Yankees pulled away from the Astros today and other teams competing for Britton. They sweetened their offer and won the sweepstakes.
“Well, the Yanks have good depth to their farm system,” Duquette said. “I think the depth of their farm system was attractive to us, and the fact that these pitchers are relatively close to the major leagues. We had some offers from some other clubs from some players with less experience that were younger players, and we just felt that this was a good fit for helping staff our teams here for the next couple years with a couple of potential starting pitchers and a reliever.
“I mean, we have openings and we thought that this was a good fit. You always look to have one headliner when you make a trade, and Tate is the headliner in this trade. We were able to fulfill that in the Dodger trade with (Yusniel) Diaz, and also add some other players to help us in the future as we rebuild the roster. But we were fortunate to identify a trading partner in the Yankees that could deliver to us a player that we felt comfortable with, a player that we could depend on in the future.”
Britton kept upping his value with each outing, his timing impeccable.
“I was looking at the numbers today, and Zach in July looks like he’s back to his old self,” Duquette said. “The fact that his velocity increased, the command of his pitches increased, the sink on his fastball increased, and the results were back to the norm that he established for himself a couple years ago, was vital for the club being able to trade the contract and acquire the player.
“I said to Zach, ‘You look like you’re ready to go.’ I said, ‘I’m glad you pitched well. You get another opportunity and we get some younger players to come and try to follow your path.’”
Rogers brought a certain appeal because he’s left-handed.
“I think that gives him a good opportunity to join our rotation on that basis,” Duquette said. “He’s really strong against left-handed hitters and we don’t have a lot of candidates for left-handed starting pitching. I guess John Means at Triple-A would be a candidate, as well. But on the basis of that, that’s how I had identified him as a potential starting pitcher. He’s a lefty. We don’t have any.”
So, who’s next out the door?
Center fielder Adam Jones has 10-5 rights and can veto any deal, and the Orioles haven’t approached him about waiving it.
Asked whether Jones is on the market, Duquette replied, “I don’t know if I’d say that Adam Jones is on the market. I did say the other day that once you start the rebuild, with the Manny trade we basically said we’re setting off in a new direction, we’re going to rebuild our roster so we can be competitive with these super teams in the American League East. And we’re going to look at all the options. So, that means we have to look at all the options with the veteran players that are going to be free agents at the end of the year, and Adam is one of them.
“Adam has a no-trade, so anything that the club would be interested in doing, we’d have to involve Adam, and we’re not at the point where we have a deal and we’re going to sit down and involve Adam in that. But the club will certainly look at all the options.
“Without getting into (other) names, when the team decides that they’re going to rebuild their roster, part of the process is to project the players that you have on your current roster and in the minor league and look at the contribution that they can add to your roster a couple years down the road. We’re in the process of doing that.
“So, to me, you have a daily plan, you have a one-year plan. I don’t put that much emphasis on a two-year plan, but on a three-year plan I think you can really lean and look and try to project what kind of contribution you can get from the players you have on your current roster. There’s a lot of data that helps you do that more accurately, and we’re in the process of doing that. But that’s part of the process when you rebuild.”