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Sele, Balfour and the O's

The O's have passed on Grant Balfour due to his physical. In Dec. 1999, The O's were laughed at for passing on Aaron Sele. History shows they were right to do so.

Grant Balfour isn't the first pitcher to fail a physical for the O's.
Grant Balfour isn't the first pitcher to fail a physical for the O's.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Grant Balfour won't be an Oriole this season, that much is certain, or at least as certain as one can be about statements from Orioles Executive Vice President Dan Duquette.

And upon a few minutes of reflection after laughing at the reaction of Grant Balfour ("You just gave up your best chance for winning!" or words to that effect), the next name that some O's fans recalled was that of Aaron Sele. And then they start cursing the "meddling" of Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos.

You may not remember Aaron Sele, but for a three-year stretch from 1998-2000, he was a pretty good pitcher. In the days before and easy access to advanced metrics, Aaron Sele looked pretty good on the back of a baseball card. He had seasons of 19, 18 and 17 wins back when pitcher wins were still a thing. He made two All-Star teams and finished 5th in A.L. Cy Young voting in 1999. And suddenly, he was on the market as a free agent.

The Orioles passed up a chance to signing him after that 1999 season. And in hindsight, they were right to do so.

Much like the current Grant Balfour saga, Aaron Sele hit the market with some decent numbers and expected the suitors to come calling. The O's did, and offered a four-year deal for $29 million, back when $29 million was a lot of money for a pitcher.

The ensuing physical examination turned up problems with Sele's pitching shoulder that reportedly gave owner Peter Angelos pause, and he nixed the deal. The internet (what there was of it in December 1999) exploded in anger, derision and bewilderment. Sele went on to sign with the Seattle Mariners, and put up the aforementioned 17-win season. The O's were laughed at, and fans ever since have pointed at the Sele contract situation as proof of Angelos' meddling ways having a negative impact on the Orioles.

But a closer look at the career that followed for Sele after that contract signing shows Angelos was right to pass on a four-year deal, given Sele's shoulder problems. Yes, Sele posted 17 wins in 2000, the season following the O's passing on him.

But that 1999 season saw the beginning of the end of Sele's career as an effective starter. His FIP and HR/9 went up every year covered by the four years he wanted by the Orioles and his ERA went up in three of the four, with a slight dip in 2001 season. From 1999 on, Aaron Sele posted exactly one season with an ERA under 4.50.

Sele did indeed have labrum surgery in late 2002, and from that point forward was a journey spot-starter and relief arm. He never made another All-Star team, never had an FIP under 4.00 after 1999 and became a nomad, signing with Anaheim, Seattle (again), the Dodgers and the Mets before leaving baseball as player after the 2007 season.

As a side note, the Orioles in 1998 had a similar situation with Xavier Hernandez. The reliever was coming off two good years with Texas, including an ERA+ of 135 for 1998. The physical showed a torn rotator cuff, and the deal was voided. Xavier Hernandez never pitched in the Major Leagues again.

So as this Grant Balfour situation winds down, let's keep one thing in mind:

Maybe the Orioles are right.