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O's Britton could be difference maker in AL

Baltimore reliever is prime trade target for contending clubs
MLB.com @MikeLupica

The bold-faced name in baseball this week is Manny Machado, now that the Dodgers made a bold move and acquired him from the Orioles on Wednesday. But one of his former Orioles teammates might turn out to be more of a difference maker for a contending team than Machado will be for the Dodgers. That would be Zach Britton, who I believe might ultimately be the difference in the American League between the four best teams in the league: Red Sox, Yankees, Astros and Indians.

The Indians got Brad Hand from the Padres on Thursday morning, and they got better in the process. The other three teams are still better. One of those teams will get a lot better with Britton.

The bold-faced name in baseball this week is Manny Machado, now that the Dodgers made a bold move and acquired him from the Orioles on Wednesday. But one of his former Orioles teammates might turn out to be more of a difference maker for a contending team than Machado will be for the Dodgers. That would be Zach Britton, who I believe might ultimately be the difference in the American League between the four best teams in the league: Red Sox, Yankees, Astros and Indians.

The Indians got Brad Hand from the Padres on Thursday morning, and they got better in the process. The other three teams are still better. One of those teams will get a lot better with Britton.

Britton, once one of the game's elite closers, ruptured his right Achilles tendon while training last December and missed Spring Training, and he didn't make his regular-season debut until June. But now he is back, and showing the same stuff, sink and velocity he did not too long ago. Britton has struck out 13 batters in 14 2/3 innings for Buck Showalter and, if he doesn't get hurt again, the Orioles are ready to deal him the way they just dealt their star, Machado.

"From everything I know," Showalter said the other day, "there's as much interest in Zach as there was in Manny. And maybe more."

Video: TEX@BAL: Britton K's Gallo to record the save

There ought to be. Unless the Mets deal Jacob deGrom, there is no elite starter in play in the run-up to this year's non-waiver Trade Deadline. There was a time when you would have had Noah Syndergaard in the conversation about elite starters, just not lately, and that was even before he injured the middle finger on his pitching hand. But Britton looks like an elite late-inning guy again, one who would become the Astros' closer as soon as he stepped off the plane in Houston.

And if Britton wouldn't be a closer in Boston or New York, he still would be the kind of elite setup guy that Andrew Miller was after the Indians got him from the Yankees in July 2016 on their way to the World Series. Miller has been hurt this season, but he is now making rehab appearances in the Minors. If he stays healthy the rest of the way, he goes in with Hand and Cody Allen.

And that is a good bullpen. Just not what the Yankees have when they line up David Robertson, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, and that's without even bringing Chad Green, one of their bullpen stars from last season, into the conversation.

Video: Chapman, Green lead Yanks to Bullpen of Week honors

The Yankees have the best bullpen, even if Green pitched some sketchy ball leading into the All-Star break. The Astros have the worst bullpen, even if sending Ken Giles to the Minors, at least for now, is addition by subtraction. The Astros made a big play for Britton last season, finally decided the price was too rich and won the World Series when their elite closer in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series turned out to be Lance McCullers Jr. and their elite closer in Game 7 of the World Series turned out to be a (now) All-Star starting pitcher, Charlie Morton.

The Astros aren't going to repeat without somebody like Britton this year. Of the four best teams in the league, and maybe the four best in all the land, the Astros seem to have the greatest need for somebody like Britton. But the Red Sox, even with as well as Joe Kelly and Matt Barnes have pitched this season and Tyler Thornburg finally healthy, need somebody like Britton ahead of Craig Kimbrel nearly as much as the Astros do.

Video: TOR@BOS: Kimbrel gets 30 saves for 8th straight year

You can even make a case that the Yankees, looking to do what the Yankees like to do -- this is the one about the rich getting richer -- should add Britton and start running big arms at you from the fifth inning on. And if they get Britton, guess what? The Astros don't, neither do the Red Sox.

I asked Yankees general manager Brian Cashman the following question on Thursday morning:

"Have you ever traded for somebody so a competitor couldn't?"

His answer was simple enough:

"Nope."

Can you see Cashman making a play for another big bullpen arm with what he already has? Probably not. It's still not a crazy idea, simply because of how much Britton would mean to the teams that might be standing between the Yankees and their first World Series since 2009 in October. Britton is healthy again, still just 30 years old and two years removed from a season in which he pitched in 69 games for the Orioles, closed 67, had 47 saves, struck out 74 and, oh by the way, had an ERA of 0.54. It doesn't mean he is this year's Justin Verlander at the Trade Deadline. But as baseball has become as much of a bullpen game as a home run game, Britton really could make all the difference in the AL.

We've spent an awful lot of time the past couple of months talking about a guy who's a Dodger now, not an Oriole. Time to turn the page, and not just in Baltimore, and start talking about the Oriole who only pitches an inning when he works, but still might be more The Man than Manny across the rest of the baseball summer.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.

Baltimore Orioles, Zach Britton