As the Boston Red Sox move forward with their pennant charge, having a strong bullpen is paramount. Rookie left-hander Drake Britton has made an early positive impression coming out of said bullpen, throwing nine shutout innings to open his big league career. He was finally touched for some runs in two of his three most recent outings, but overall he's had a strong debut, with 2.08 ERA and a 11/4 K/BB in his first 13 major league innings. Britton's performance as a prospect was uneven, so let's take a gander at his past, present, and possible future.
Britton was drafted by the Red Sox in the 23rd round in 2007, from high school in Tomball, Texas. He was considered a third-round talent but fell in the draft due to a Texas A&M commitment. Under the old draft rules, Boston was often aggressive with over-slot bonuses and Britton was one of their guys, earning $700,000 to pass up college. He promptly blew out his elbow and had Tommy John surgery, not pitching much until 2010.
He thrived that season, with a 2.97 ERA and a 78/23 K/BB in 76 innings for Low-A Greenville in the South Atlantic League, a performance that placed him highly on Boston prospect lists. Unfortunately 2011 was much different: he went 1-13 with a 6.91 ERA in 26 starts for High-A Salem, with an 89/55 K/BB in 98 innings, with 111 hits allowed. Command was an obvious difficulty, with mechanical issues and problems with pacing and confidence also evident.
2012 was better, although results were mixed. He posted a 5.80 ERA for Salem with a 42/19 K/BB in 45 innings, but was more effective after moving up to Double-A Portland, with a 3.72 ERA and a 76/38 K/BB in 85 innings. Returned to Portland for 2013, he marked a 3.51 ERA with an 80/36 K/BB in 97 innings. He made one start for Triple-A Pawtucket, giving up 10 hits in 5.1 innings with five strikeouts, and as noted he's now in the major league bullpen.
As you can see, Britton's minor league performance was spotty, but this wasn't for lack of stuff: he hit 96 MPH at times in the minors and works consistently in the 90-94 range with his fastball. He used to throw a curveball as his main secondary pitch, but has supplanted this with a slider. He has a changeup, but it is behind the fastball and slider in quality. He showed more confidence last year after significant problems in that department in '11. He also made progress cleaning up his mechanics.
Britton's development as a prospect was far from linear, and it remains to be seen if he'll show the necessary command to take a key long-term role in the bullpen. Nevertheless, he's improved over the last year, and lefties with live arms have long lives. Most observers see Britton as a reliever, coming in to overpower hitters with his fastball and slider in short doses. I agree with that and I don't think he profiles as a starter long-term.
If the command holds up, he'll be quite valuable down the stretch. If it doesn't, he could end up with mop-up work. Given his wildly oscillating track record, your guess is as good as mine for which Britton we see.