When the Orioles are discussed as an improved team this season, the talk typically turns to pitchers Chris Tillman, 25, Brian Matusz, 24, Brad Bergesen, 25, and Jake Arrieta, 25. All of them threw at least 170 innings last season, putting them on track for the possibility of a breakout season with no workload restrictions. They are only just now entering their prime years.
Left unspoken, though, is that the potential ace of this emerging staff has yet to make his major league debut. Lefthander Zach Britton, 23, quietly has become the talk of camp -- especially among the scouts who have watched him pitch.
"He's probably the best arm they have," said one scout. "The way he's throwing the ball there's no way they have five starters better than him. He's been one of the best arms I've seen this spring. He really should make the team, but there's no way they're going to do that because of the Super Two thing."
By keeping Britton in the minors until about the last week of May, the Orioles can not only forestall free agency by a year but also hold Britton to three arbitration-eligible years instead of four. Baltimore used a similarly timed callup for catcher Matt Wieters in what is a common practice around baseball. (Wieters, the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg, the Marlins' Mike Stanton, the Indians' Carlos Santana, the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen, the White Sox' Gordon Beckham and the Braves' Tommy Hanson are just a few of the players who, coincidentally or not, were called up between May 29 and June 11 the past two years.)
Britton is a rare bird, indeed, around baseball: Go ahead and try to name other lefthanded starters who throw 94 mph at the knees with movement. After David Price, what other power lefties are out there?
Britton has thrown 14 scoreless innings this spring (five of them in a minor league game). Major league hitters have a hard time lifting his pitches, let alone squaring them up. He has allowed just one extra base hit, a double, and obtained 18 of his 27 outs on the ground against major leaguers. The lefty looks like a true success story of the development plan president Andy MacPhail emphasized when he was hired in 2007. (Britton was drafted in 2006.) Britton has been allowed to make more than 100 starts and throw more than 500 innings in the minors, standards that used to be commonplace before good arms were rushed into bullpen jobs in the big leagues.
This is turning out to be a difficult spring for Milwaukee, with catcher Jonathan Lucroy (finger) and righthanded pitchers Zack Greinke (basketball injury; rib), Mark Rogers (shoulder) and now Shaun Marcum (shoulder) all requiring medical attention. The Brewers must hope that the stiffness that knocked Marcum from his start Thursday is not a major issue, but something typical of the traditional mid-March "dead arm" period that pitchers face.
When I spoke with Marcum earlier this spring he told me he used to throw as hard as 94 mph, but lost velocity by relying on his cutter. He said he wanted to at least get back into the low 90s by ramping up his long toss program this spring.
When healthy, Marcum, 29, is one of the most rare pitchers in baseball: a young righthanded starter who is a successful without velocity. Marcum (87.1 mph) had the ninth lowest average fastball velocity last year among qualified starters, according to Fangraphs.com.
In fact, among the list of the 17 starters with an average fastball velocity no better than 89 mph, only two of them were righthanded and younger than 31: Marcum and Doug Fister, who was 6-14 for Seattle.
Marcum put up a 13-8 season for Toronto, posting a 3.64 ERA over 195 1/3 innings -- a stupendous season in the AL East. Over the past two years, only four other AL East pitchers managed an ERA that low while pitching that many innings: David Price, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia and Jon Lester. And Marcum did it without anything close to the velocity of those star pitchers.
Houston first baseman Brett Wallace turns 25 this season, and for a guy who was with four organizations in 12 months when he debuted with the Astros last year, he finally appears to have some security. Now all he has to do is hit the way scouts and each of his organizations expected.
Last week a Houston source said, "Everything tells you he should hit. He was Pac-10 player of the year [at Arizona State] twice -- on the same team as Ike Davis. He was involved in trades for Matt Holliday, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt. So come on, there has to be something there, right? The problem for us is, we haven't seen it yet. We just haven't seen it."
That was right before Wallace unloaded four hits, including a grand slam, against Baltimore last week. A career .308 hitter in the minors, Wallace hit .222 with almost no power in 51 games for the Astros last season. But this spring he is hitting at a .350 clip and taking ownership of the first-base job.