It's hard to think of a year going any better than 2010 did for lefty Zach Britton.
The 2006 third-round pick did, after all, pitch at the two upper-most levels of the Orioles' farm system, went to the Futures Game and led the organization in ERA while finishing second in wins and strikeouts. Those results landed him at No. 19 on MLB.com's Top 50 Prospects list and No. 3 among all left-handed pitching prospects.
"I was happy with what I did last year," Britton said. "I felt like I did what I wanted to do coming into Spring Training 2010. I wanted to focus on my changeup and pitching more with a game plan rather than just throwing my sinker. I felt like I accomplished that."
The sinker was still a pretty good weapon for Britton last year, and he finished with a 2.94 groundout-to-airout ratio. Beyond that, he showed he could throw all three of his pitches at any point in the count with better command. His ability to do that last year made what can be a difficult leap to Double-A and Triple-A seem relatively simple.
Britton now sits on the precipice of joining a young nucleus of relatively homegrown starters in Baltimore. He's seen Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta go from O's draftees to big leaguers, and he can't wait to join them -- seeing them not only as role models because of their success, but by how they handled the adversity that's sure to come his way.
"Those guys have come up in the past couple of years and have done a good job," Britton said. "Especially with Jake -- he kind of struggled early on, but he actually finished really [well]. That gives me some hope -- knowing you're going to go through some struggles up there, but you can turn it around quickly like he did.
"With us being in camp all Together, [it] is going to be really beneficial, just learning from each other, picking each other's brains."
Don't mistake Britton's confidence for arrogance. He knows he needs to continue to work if he wants to have success at the highest level. But he knows he's very close -- tossing nine scoreless innings to start his Spring Training didn't hurt -- and wants to do what he has to for whenever that call comes.
"I'm just getting myself prepared for whenever they give me the opportunity -- whether it's out of Spring Training or a couple of months into the Minor League season," Britton said. "I'm preparing myself mentally and also getting my pitches sharper."
If he can do that, 2011 just might trump 2010 after all.
Orioles' Top 10 Prospects
1. Britton, LHP: Even if Britton doesn't start the year in Baltimore, it seems more and more likely he'll finish it there. The ground-ball machine commands three pitches well and is very durable. It's a question of if, not when, he joins Matusz, Arrieta and Co. in the young O's rotation.
2. Manny Machado, SS: The top high school position player in last year's First-Year Player Draft, Machado came in at No. 24 on the Top 50 list and topped the shortstop prospect rankings as well. He should hit for average and power, and even with his size (6-foot-3, 185 pounds), can play an excellent shortstop. He's ready to hit full-season ball when the 2011 Minor League season begins.
3. Xavier Avery, OF: The 2010 season is when Avery really started turning potential into performance. He played at two levels, reaching Double-A for the first time. He has plus speed and should continue to steal bases, and he plays a very good center field. While he still strikes out too much for a leadoff type, he did improve on the plate-discipline front. A return to Double-A Bowie appears to be in the cards for the 21-year-old speedster.
4. Joe Mahoney, 1B/OF: MLB.com's choice for O's Minor League Hitter of the Year, Mahoney led the system in batting average, finished fourth in homers and third in RBIs as he played across two levels. Standing 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, he's kind of hard to miss, and it looks like he's finally tapping into his raw power. A member of the 40-man roster, he could be ready to play first in Baltimore by next season.
WHEN WILL THEY ARRIVE?
6. L.J. Hoes, 2B: Before mononucleosis derailed his season in Class A Frederick, Hoes looked very much like a future top-of-the-order type. He hit .290 with a .413 on-base percentage in the first half of the season -- the kinds of numbers that might be expected of the 21-year-old as he progresses. He's still learning how to play second, and that will continue to be a work in progress as he moves up to Double-A this season.
7. Dan Klein, RHP: The second time was a charm for the Orioles, who drafted Klein out of high school in 2007, then again in the third round last June. He was a closer for UCLA, but it looks like Baltimore will let him develop as a starter because of his four-pitch mix and his ability to command it. He had shoulder surgery in college, and the O's will likely bring him along slowly, knowing they can always shorten him up and get him going quickly in the bullpen.
8. Mychal Givens, SS: A thumb injury ended Givens' 2010 season nearly before it began, so the 2009 draftee will be more or less making his debut this season. He's got a good approach at the plate and should have extra-base power as he develops. The big question is where he's going to play defensively. He's got the tools to play shortstop, but there's also that Machado fellow, so Givens might slide over to second so the pair can play together.
9. Jonathan Schoop, SS: The native of Curacao had a very solid United States debut, giving the Orioles yet another intriguing prospect up the middle. Last summer, Schoop showed solid ability with the bat and should continue to grow into some power. He has good actions defensively, but with Machado and Givens, along with Schoop potentially outgrowing the position, he could have a move to third in his future.
10. Brandon Snyder, 1B/OF: The 2005 first-rounder hasn't taken the most direct path to the big leagues, but he's finally just about there, despite a subpar 2010 at Triple-A. He still has a good bat from the right side and can play a decent first base. He also has Derrek Lee in his way, so the O's have had him catching to make him more versatile.
Under the Radar
Ryan Berry, RHP: Berry slid to the ninth round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft because of a shoulder injury and less-than-eye-popping stuff. Still, he finished second in the organization with his 3.22 ERA during his debut last year, pitching at both Class A levels. He doesn't hurt himself with walks and had a nifty 2.10 GO/AO ratio. There isn't much margin for error for him, so it will be interesting to see how his stuff plays at higher levels this season.
Brandon Waring, 3B/1B/OF: He can play three positions, though perhaps not any one of them every day. He strikes out a lot (179 times in 129 games in 2010), but the power is legit, with at least 20 homers for four straight seasons and a career .504 slugging percentage. If he can make contact just a bit more, he could be a solid power threat off the bench in Baltimore.
Hitter of the Year -- Machado
Why stray from the obvious when the obvious makes so much sense? Machado will top the organization in average in his first full season, perhaps even getting a bump up to Frederick at season's end.
Pitcher of the Year -- Klein
With Britton likely to spend a good amount of time in Baltimore, it's time to pass the torch. In 2011, Klein will take the baton. Even if his long-term role is as a reliever, this season he'll do just fine starting, competing for the organization's pitching triple crown.