Baltimore Orioles 2013 in review: Jim Johnson

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

After a rough season, the Orioles closer is nonetheless poised to get expensive in 2014. But who will end up paying him?

There's an alternate reality where, instead of writing Orioles 2013 player reviews in October, your favorite Camden Chat writers spent the month writing playoff recaps. Unlike many alternate realities out there, this one isn't even that far removed from the parallel universe we happen to occupy. You can never pin a baseball team's season on one person, really. The Orioles could've made the playoffs in any number of ways, but the team legitimately could have made it with the exact performances it received from everyone else if Jim Johnson had had a better 2013. The Orioles won 86 games while Johnson blew nine saves. Eight of the nine blown saves resulted in team losses. If Johnson had blown three saves (as he did in 2012), the Orioles could've won 92 games and been tied with both Tampa and Texas, at least earning some really exciting play-in action at the beginning of October.

Johnson's struggles were primarily isolated to two brutal stretches, one in mid-May (four blown saves in six appearances, three of which were consecutive), and another in mid-August (three more consecutive blown saves). During the first rough stretch, I (like many Orioles fans) bemoaned the situation and wondered what the team ought to do. Johnson righted the ship, but when the second tough patch came around, folks started to wonder whether Johnson would even be back with the team in 2014, his last year of arbitration, bound to be an expensive one. But then, before the season ended, Dan Duquette cleared up the mystery by explicitly stating that Johnson would be tendered a contract this offseason.

Saves aren't everything, of course. They're a strange statistic. They're a closer's main job, but sometimes they're dependent on luck, and other times, they're not even the hardest situation to plow through within a single game. The thing is, most other statistics aren't particularly kind to Johnson's 2013, either. He had one of his highest strikeout rates, but right along with it, he had an inflated walk rate, hit rate and home run rate. It was really feast or famine with Johnson, even though most of his struggles were confined to the two rough stretches, and some of his ultimate stats (like ERA and K/BB ratio) don't fall too far out of line with his career totals.

Johnson made $6.5 million in 2013, and with two consecutive 50-save seasons under his belt, he's likely to get a raise in his last year of arbitration. The Orioles can either take him to arbitration for 2014, his last year before free agency, or they could take an interesting approach and try to reach a two- or three-year deal with Johnson, assuming that Duquette and Buck Showalter see him as a core part of the team's future. A longer deal might enable the team to pay him less than the $10.8 he's likely to earn in arbitration this year (per MLB Trade Rumors, who usually estimates such things well), in exchange for job security, if Johnson is afraid of hurting his own value in free agency, or afraid that the Orioles might make him a qualifying offer after 2014, reducing his ability to sign with another team by costing them a draft pick. It's probably an outside chance, though.

Another possibility is that the Orioles reach that one-year deal with Johnson and then pursue a trade with a contending team in need of a closer (the Tigers have been mentioned frequently as a team to pursue talks with Johnson over). The problem with trading an expensive player, of course, is that a team is often forced to either ship money along with the player or accept a minimal return in prospects, which really makes a fan start to wonder why the team wouldn't have just cut bait in the first place.

All of which leads me to say, now that we know Duquette isn't just cutting Johnson, I really expect him to be an Oriole for 2014. If he's going to be traded, I would think it would only be at the deadline, if the Orioles are not in contention. The good news about Johnson sticking around is that it seems reasonable to expect him to improve in 2014. His 2013 was definitely bumpy at times, but if you isolate a couple rough stretches -- whatever their cause, whether it was poor communication with Matt Wieters, mechanical flaws or just plain bad luck -- there's nothing that makes Johnson look doomed to an equally tough 2014. This is why relief pitcher performance can be so fickle throughout the majors from year to year -- the sample size is smaller and it doesn't take much to blow up a season. So even if Johnson kicks off 2014 as the team's closer, it shouldn't be a reason for fans to fear. The team's offseason decisions on second base, left field, the middle of the rotation and the rest of the bullpen will probably be of far more consequence.

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