January 22, 2014 at 7:00 AM
BOSTON, Mass. — From an embarrassing run-in with the law down in spring training, to starting in Portland then relieving in Boston with just one Pawtucket start in between, it's safe to say Drake Britton's 2013 season was a whirlwind. But you will not hear him complain; reaching the major leagues represented the fulfillment of the left-hander’s lifetime dream.
"I was definitely really nervous," Britton said of his major league debut recently at The Jimmy Fund's New Stars for Young Stars fundraiser. "There was a lot that I was thinking about: This is what I had dreamed of, what I had been working for my whole life, and it was finally coming true. So it was an unbelievable feeling, one that I'll never be able to explain."
Though he had just four relief appearances in his six years spent in the Red Sox system, all in piggyback starter situations, he was called upon to fill a bullpen role in the big leagues in mid-July when the club was juggling its roster due to injuries. He pitched a scoreless ninth inning against the Yankees in his debut on July 20, and adapted to the role well enough that the club never sent him back down to Triple-A to work on the transition, as it has done previously with other pitching prospects moved to the bullpen.
"I just kept an open mind," the 24-year-old Texan said on the abrupt transition. "I tried not to go in there and think that I knew everything about relieving. I just tried to pick the brains of the guys that were out there and I just did my best I could to fill that role because Andrew Miller had gone down.
"But I'm still pitching in the big leagues, so I was willing to do whatever it took to get the job done."
Britton was celebrating making the majors in July, but that was the last thing he could imagine after he was arrested in Fort Myers on March 2 for suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. For a young player trying to establish himself, it can often be tough to move on from such an incident, which can become fans' main association for a name with which they are otherwise unfamiliar. But Britton said that he felt that by battling up to the majors just a few months later, he showed he overcame the incident and gave casual fans a different reason to know his name.
"It took a while [to move past it]" Britton said. "It was an unfortunate thing, I made a mistake. I feel like once I finally got back on track, I focused on what was more important and that was my career and where I was going moving forward. That incident didn't define me as a person, and I feel like I showed that. And I showed a lot of heart coming back from that to end up in Boston the way that I did. I'm proud of the way I handled things after that."
Britton can now put the incident completely in the past as his case in Lee County was resolved earlier this offseason, when he pled nolo contendere (no contest) to and was sentenced for two lesser charges. His sentence included a fine, probation, and a short sentence in a day work program, but is not expected to impact his coming season.
Despite the set back in spring, he still managed to start the 2013 season on time with the Sea Dogs, and actually received the Opening Day start for the team, perhaps a sign that the organization felt he showed maturity moving on from the situation. He made 16 starts and one long-relief appearance with Portland, finishing with a 3.51 ERA before being promoted to Triple-A for one start then thrown in the major league bullpen.
One weapon that is fairly new to Britton’s arsenal that aided his quick ascent and smooth conversion to relieving is his slider. Early in his career, the curveball appeared to be a breaking pitch that had high potential, but control trouble and inconsistency with it led him to learn a slider, which now he leans on heavily.
"The slider definitely is [my go-to breaking ball now]," he said. "I've worked all offseason on it and I feel like I've got a great feel for it to throw it for a strike, to strike a guy out with it. It's just a better fit for me and my arm action. The curveball I struggled with too much, and the slider, I feel like I picked it up real quick."
Britton is one of a group of several high-level pitching prospects in the upper minors that came up through the system together, including Anthony Ranaudo, Matt Barnes, and Brandon Workman. Britton feels that playing with these teammates was a luxury that has paid dividends not only on the field, but also in the healthy competition and camaraderie built among them.
"We're all real close when it comes to that because we've come up together, we've had success together," Britton said. "We push each other. We push each other to do better than the guy before you just did. It's a competition, but we're all still friends at the end of the day."
While Britton has not been officially told by the team whether he will be moving to a full-time bullpen role, with loaded starting rotations in Pawtucket and Boston, such a permanent transition looks likely. It does not hurt that he excelled in the role in limited time last year, posting a better WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio than his time earlier in the season starting in Portland, and besting or matching his career minor league numbers pretty much across the board. The fact that many scouts projected him to fit best in that role anyway in the long-term also plays into it. As far as he's concerned, any chance to pitch in the majors is fine with him.
"To me, I don't have a preference," he said on starting versus relieving. "I want to pitch in the big leagues. So if they ask me to go back there and catch, I'll do it. I just want to play."
Photo credit: Drake Britton and a young fan at New Stars for Young Stars by Kelly O'Connor
Matt Huegel is Managing Editor for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattHuegelSP. SoxProspects.com Executive Editor Chris Hatfield also contributed reporting to this story.