As the Orioles gather in Sarasota, Fla., for spring training, pitcher Zach Britton is hoping for a bounce-back season.
Does that sentence sound familiar? It should. The same was true of Britton a year ago.
In 2014, though, Britton's need for a career renaissance is an even more urgent issue than it was in 2013. Britton, a 26-year-old left-hander, is now out of options, which means that if he doesn't stick on the Orioles' roster, he could find himself in another uniform. The Birds would have to pass Britton through waivers if they wanted to try to send him to the minors, but it's likely another team would claim him. So the 2014 season could be do-or-die time for Britton in Baltimore.
Britton's chances of cracking the Opening Day roster might have taken a hit when the Birds signed Korean right-handed pitcher Suk-min Yoon and veteran starter Ubaldo Jimenez within days of each other. The addition of Jimenez likely finalizes the Birds' starting rotation, pushing Britton out of the competition for the fifth starter's spot, while Yoon could claim a relief job, crowding the bullpen picture.
Britton, though, said he was trying not to put too much pressure on himself, going about his business as if it's any other spring.
"I think every spring training is kind of the same," Britton said. "You've got to go in there and compete for a job, make sure you're ready. … I think this offseason, I've really done a lot more stuff than I have done in the past, working out with Brady [Anderson, Orioles vice president of baseball operations] and Ryo [Naito, Triple-A Norfolk's strength and conditioning coach] in California. I just feel like I'm in really good shape, throwing a lot more this offseason, doing a weighted-ball program for my shoulder that I think has really helped."
It may seem like a lifetime ago that Britton was a prized, up-and-coming young pitcher. Britton dazzled Orioles fans during spring training of 2011 and cracked the Opening Day roster, showing occasional flashes of brilliance during his 28-start rookie season.
But Britton suffered a shoulder impingement during his sophomore spring training in 2012. His career hasn't been the same since. Britton has been limited to 20 major league games during the past two seasons combined, pitching to a 5.02 ERA and losing the feel for his sinker, which was a key part of his rookie-season repertoire.
For Britton, a return to full health could be the key to rediscovering his previous success.
"My arm feels as good as it has in a really long time," Britton said. "And just playing catch with Miguel [Gonzalez] and [Chris] Tillman, they've seen me, and they're [saying], 'Hey, there's a really big difference in your arm action and how the ball's coming out.' And that's nice to hear. It's one thing to feel it, but it's another thing when other guys on the team are telling you that you look a lot better than you have."
The arrival of new pitching coach Dave Wallace and new bullpen coach Dom Chiti -- both of whom have helped young pitchers reach their potential at other stops, including Atlanta -- could help Britton, too. Britton met with the duo this winter while working out in California.
"It was a great little get-together," Britton said of the meeting. "They seem like they mesh really well. I've heard great things about Dave from [Jair] Jurrjens, who we had last year. I spoke with him about his time in Atlanta. And everyone I spoke to said he's a great guy to work with. … He's helped a lot of young pitchers in the past. So it's great to get him in here, and I'm anxious to see what he's going to teach me to help get my career going in the right direction."
For now, Britton's best chance of making the Opening Day roster could come as a long reliever or left-handed specialist. With left-handed pitcher Troy Patton suspended for the first 25 games, the O's might target Britton as a possible replacement, giving the team a second southpaw in the bullpen to join incumbent Brian Matusz. That would allow the Birds to hang on for Britton, at least for the short term, to avoid the risk of losing him to another team.
The fact that Britton is out of options, though, doesn't guarantee that the Orioles will keep him on the roster at all costs.
"Just because you're out of options doesn't mean you're in the big leagues," Britton said. "I think that's the misconception about it. You've got to make sure that you're ready to go, and then you have a good chance to be in the big leagues. It just helps kind of take the weight off your shoulders a little bit. In the past, you could perform in spring training and still got optioned down. So you're like: 'OK, it's on me now to make the decision on whether or not I'm in the big leagues. It's not up to them. It's up to me.' "
For as tumultuous as Britton's career has been, it's easy to forget that he's 26 and has fewer than 50 games of big league experience. Britton could still have a bright future about him -- if he can put the past behind him.
"This offseason I really said, hey, I'm going to forget about all the success [and] all the bad stuff that I went through," Britton said. "And I'm really going to focus on this year and what I've got to do to be successful and make this team."