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Winter Wonders

Compiled by Chris Kline
January 19, 2005

All hail great Britton

It's certainly understandable how Orioles reliever Chris Britton might have felt slightly out of place.

A late addition to the California-Carolina League all-star game last June, Britton found himself playing with some of the top prospects in the minors--but it just turned out to be a proving ground for what was to come.

"He's not a guy that jumped out at you with the Brandon Woods, the Billy Butlers and the Nick Markakises," a scout from an American League club who attended the all-star game, said. "He was Chris Britton. That didn't mean anything then, but he's made it mean something now."

Britton finished the 2005 season 6-0, 1.60 with 110 strikeouts and 23 walks in 79 innings, helping high Class A Frederick claim the Carolina League title. After a brief stint in instructional league, Britton reported to Venezuela. His dominance continued--after a few rough outings--as he adjusted to his first taste of winter ball.

"He got hit pretty hard the first two times out," Orioles farm director David Stockstill said. "But he started to figure some things out and finished up very well."

Britton wound up with a 5.16 ERA for La Guaira, but his secondary numbers were just as exceptional as they were during the regular season. The 23-year-old righthander struck out 35 and walked nine over 23 innings. He recorded more saves (10) than his season in the States as well, since the O's were mostly bringing him in for two or three inning stints over the summer.

"There's no doubt he could have had 20 or 30 saves in the Carolina League last year," Stockstill said. "But we didn't want him just coming in trying to blowing people away with his fastball."

Instead of relying on his 92-93 mph heater, Britton was forced to use his secondary stuff more, and the results showed--particularly for La Guaira. He repeated the arm action on his changeup much better, but probably the biggest sign of improvement was the location with his slider.

"He was throwing it for strikes, which is something he seldom did before on a consistent basis," Stockstill said. "He always tried to throw it outside the zone and make guys chase, but there he was hitting his spots with it fearlessly."

There is little doubt that fear is something Britton rarely feels--at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, the reliever his teammates refer to as "Bulldog," has always been known for going right after hitters.

An eighth-round pick out of Plantation (Fla.) High in 2001, Britton was developing nicely until a freak injury derailed his progression in spring training of 2003. While he was fielding a routine comebacker, the ball took a weird hop and Britton ended up taking it off his nose. He missed the entire season as a result.

But he came back the following season at low Class A Delmarva, going 9-4, 3.75 in 84 innings. And after his coming out party in 2005, people began to take notice. He was named to the O's 40-man roster in November and even had trouble leaving Venezuela when La Guaira didn't make the playoffs.

"Another team wanted him," Stockstill said, "but he decided it was time to come home and get ready for spring training. He became kind of a commodity there as the season went on. A lot of that success goes to his slider command and his deception--with his arm action, it looks like the ball is coming right out of his uniform."

De Caster Shows Surprising Power

CARACAS, Venez.--After a strong season in the Venezuelan League that helped him earn a spot on the Pirates' 40-man roster, Curacao native Yurendell De Caster is looking to follow in countryman Andruw Jones' footsteps by playing in the majors.

After playing for Triple-A Indianapolis, De Caster joined the Anzoategui Caribes with two main goals. “I wanted to become more consistent at the plate and to work on my defense in the outfield,” said De Caster, who prefers third base.

He ended up hitting .325 and playing a solid right field. But even De Caster himself didn't expect to tie for the league lead in home runs (17) or stolen bases (11) while finishing second in runs and RBIs.

"I wasn't thinking about stealing, but the manager gave me the green light," said De Caster. "I wasn't thinking 'home run,' but it just worked out that way."

After a torrid start--by November he had 15 home runs in 130 AB, putting him on track to easily break the league's season record of 20 home runs--De Caster cooled down considerably. After playing all the way to the International League championship with Indianapolis, fatigue set in. This, coupled with the improved pitching in December as more Triple-A and major league pitchers joined the action, led to a slump.

De Caster's increased power--an impressive .632 slugging percentage--also helped him get 36 walks this winter, compared to 37 in 415 at-bats with Indianapolis, while his overall OBP of .427 gave him more chances to steal.

It’s not unusual for players to discover tools they never realized they had, but De Caster’s newfound power and speed come late in his career. At 26, he is a veteran. But perhaps these new tools, combined with his versatility, will finally propel De Caster into the big leagues.

"Playing all positions helps my chances, at least in the National League. It allows me to come in on double switches. I have to show what I got and compete to be a utility player. Now, I feel like I can play in the big leagues."



• Another Pirate that had a banner winter was righthanded reliever Chris Hernandez. A 22nd-round pick in 2003 out of South Carolina, Hernandez went 1-2, 1.80 with a 18-9 strikeout-walk ratio in 25 innings for Occidente in the Venezuelan League. "He's a poor man's version of Danny Graves," Pirates' farm director Brian Graham said. "The have the same body type, same delivery and comparable stuff."

• Rangers righthander John Lujan created quite the buzz pitching for Caguas in Puerto Rico. Lujan, a 15th-round pick in 2004 from New Mexico Junior College, allowed just 12 baserunners and no earned runs over 20 innings of work.


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