Drake Britton entered the offseason wanting to make a good impression on the Boston Red Sox decision makers by proving he could be a valuable asset out of the bullpen.
That changed when Britton was designated for assignment on February 2 and claimed by the Cubs two days later and added to the 40-man roster.
Now it appears as if Britton, who turns 26 in May, will get a similar opportunity to show his value to the front office who drafted him in the 23rd round of the 2007 amateur draft.
In a bullpen stockpiled with hard-throwing right-handers, the 6-2, 215-pound Britton could find himself as the lefty power arm out of the bullpen. In 25 career big league appearances, he has held 51 left-handed batters to a .238/.333/.310/.643 line, posting a 29.4 percent strikeout rate. Though, in order for Britton to emerge as a serious option for the Cubs’ pen, he will have to find his command and cut down on a much-too-high 13.7 percent walk rate. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Britton was primarily a starter (102 of 151 minor league appearances came in starts) in the Red Sox organization. Before the 2014 season, Baseball America ranked Britton 17th among Red Sox prospects, but ranked as high as third in the organization in 2010. Britton also ranked as high as 97th in BA’s top-100 before the 2011 season, reaching that status after a 2010 campaign at Class-A Greenville, in which he posted a 2.97 ERA in 21 starts, while striking out 78 in 75.2 innings.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to consistently match the 24.5 percent strikeout rate and 7.2 percent walk rate he flashed in 2010. A year later at Class-A+ Salem, Britton went 1-13 with a 6.91 ERA in 26 starts. His peripherals took a hit in the process as his walks-per-nine jumped from 2.7 to 5.1, hits-per-nine went from 8.2 to 10.2 and strikeouts-per-nine dipped from 9.3 to 8.2.
Still, he worked his way up the ladder in 2012 and 2013, before making his big league debut on July 20, 2013 with a perfect ninth inning in a 5-2 Red Sox loss to the Yankees. It was the first of 25 decent big league appearances for Britton between 2013 and 2014, all out of the bullpen, in which he posted a solid 2.93 ERA and 3.00 FIP over 27.2 innings, with an 18.9 percent strikeout rate and 8.1 percent walk rate.
Britton entered this winter inspired enough to stay in Boston and work out in the winter and plan a training trip to the Red Sox’s facilities in Fort Myers, Fla., to get a head start on Spring Training workouts. It was for naught, as the Red Sox signed Alexi Ogando, which led to the team cutting ties with Britton. Instead, he will take that chip on his shoulder into Cubs camp. He told WEEI’s Rob Bradford he was shocked to learn he was designated for assignment after the Ogando signing.
“I was excited to go into Spring Training with the Red Sox just to show that they should keep me and prove to them I made the proper adjustments and the things I needed to do to stand out,” Britton told Bradford shortly after he was claimed by the Cubs. “I didn’t get that opportunity with them, but now I have the opportunity to go over to Chicago and show them what I got.”
So, does Britton have a real shot at making the Cubs’ bullpen?
Well, the fact that he’s a lefty can’t hurt. As good as the 2014 Cubs bullpen was, it lacked a strong left-handed presence.
Wesley Wright was the primary lefty and had some odd splits. He was OK against right-handed batters, limiting them to a .255 average, but nine of the 27 hits he allowed to righties (seven doubles, two home runs) went for extra bases. Lefties actually hit for a higher average against Wright last year, batting .273, but each of the 21 hits he allowed were singles. Tough luck.
James Russell wasn’t any better against lefties, who hit .284/.351/.455/.805 in a 2014 season split between the Cubs and Braves. Zac Rosscup limited fellow lefties to a .200 average in 30 plate appearances (with a gaudy 43.3 percent strikeout rate), but he walked 5 of those 30 batters (16.7 percent).
The team’s best weapon against left-handed hitters might have been righty Justin Grimm, who faced the second most lefties (only Hector Rondon faced more) out of the pen in 2014. Grimm limited left-handed batters to a .188/.293/.235/.528 slash line with 29 strikeouts. (If you wanted to stretch for an “against lefties” guy, you could check out Blake Parker’s strong career reverse splits.)
Enter Britton, primarily a fastball-slider pitcher whose heater sits between 91-95. Per FanGraphs, he has thrown his fastball 62.1 percent of the time at an average speed of 92.6 mph.
Britton’s best shot at making an impact could come as a reliever, where his velocity and command might play up, and where he might be able to rely solely on his fastball and slider. Indeed, in the 2014 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America said that the potential was there for Britton to be an impact reliever.
But if Britton doesn’t make the team out of camp, he could possibly be of use as a spot starter if he can find some control and refine his change-up at AAA. Of course, Britton is out of minor league options, so, if he doesn’t make the team out of camp, the Cubs will have to get him through waivers if they want to keep him.
Here is a look at what MLB.com had to say about Britton back in his prospect days in 2013:
And for old time’s sake, here’s a look at his aforementioned debut against the Yankees: