With the Orioles dealing Jim Johnson to Oakland in a move to free up some payroll (hopefully for bigger moves to come and not just to reduce payroll for its own sake), the Orioles are left with a decision to make for 2014. Who will close out games with a tight lead?
Let's get this out of the way early: The Orioles will have a designated closer in 2014. You can say anything you'd like about using the best pitcher available for the matchups and the highest-leverage situations of any given game, and you wouldn't be wrong, but being right isn't everything. Buck Showalter wants a go-to guy for the ninth inning, old quotes about the "win rule" and the "save rule" notwithstanding. So right or wrong, this article is talking about a "closer," not some pie-in-the-sky approach where the 2014 Orioles redefine major-league bullpen usage, even though a sky full of pies sounds pretty great.
When we talk about prospective non-Jim Johnson closers already on the Orioles roster, Tommy Hunter jumps right to a lot of people's minds. After struggling as a starter for years, Hunter converted to the bullpen in 2012, and his increased velocity in that role ramped up his strikeouts effectively. Hunter the reliever has a career 2.99 ERA with a decent 4.13 K/BB ratio. That looks like a closer, until you look a little closer. Hunter's effectiveness has been largely based on his usage -- predominantly against right-handed hitters, and mostly with at least one night's rest. Looking at the other side of those splits -- lefties OPS .843 against Hunter, and he has a 4.05 ERA with an .805 opponents' OPS on no days' rest -- makes one think that maybe Hunter should continue to be used judiciously. Hunter gave up some back-breaking, game-killing home runs in late innings last year against good lefties like Adam Dunn and James Loney, and you have to be able to trust your closer to get through guys like that.
Darren O'Day comes right to mind as another option. O'Day struggled mightily against lefties in 2013, too (worse than Hunter, in fact), but his career splits are much, much more favorable than Hunter's. He doesn't have gaudy strikeout numbers, but his career 3.54 K/BB isn't bad at all. And his career 2.62 ERA and 1.046 WHIP look like numbers you'd want a closer to put up. If the Orioles went with an internal option, I'd probably want it to be O'Day. But O'Day has also never really closed (four career saves), and he has been incredibly useful to the Orioles as a late-inning option against the meat of a lineup (particularly righties) -- sometimes in even tougher situations than the ninth inning -- which would be a tough thing to replace.
The last name that gets thrown around is Brian Matusz, but I can't even start to take him seriously as a full-time closing option. Maybe if he could just pitch to David Ortiz in every at-bat of every ninth inning. But really -- Brian Matusz can't get righties out. They OPS .860 against him in his career. It's not a good thing. The thought of Matusz pitching to a right-handed slugger with men on base in a one-run game makes me incredibly nervous, and it should make you incredibly nervous, too, and I'm sure it makes Buck Showalter incredibly nervous.
Free Agent Options
The Orioles have a sordid history of giving out ill-conceived contracts to free agent relievers, but there are actually a lot of intriguing options out there this offseason, many of whom can be had for less than Johnson's projected $10.8M salary, even if they require a two- or three-year commitment.
Probably the top option on the market is Edward Mujica, who doesn't have a long history of success, but had a filthy 2013, racking up 37 saves to go with a 2.78 ERA, 1.005 WHIP and 9.20 (!) K/BB rate during an All-Star campaign with the Cardinals. He's the top reliever on the open market, and it's projected that he'll get a three-year deal in the neighborhood of $20M. Stop and think about that for a moment -- if the Orioles replace Johnson with Mujica, they could potentially upgrade their closer, and add a bench player in Jemile Weeks, while shedding about $3.5M from their payroll to use elsewhere -- with the only real risk being regression by Mujica sometime before 2016. Admittedly, that's a non-zero risk, since 2013 was a breakout year for the 30-year-old, but it would probably look like something of a masterstroke if it really went down that way.
After Mujica, the free-agent options get a little more dicey. Rumors have already linked the Orioles to John Axford, who has had some very effective years in Milwaukee, but none of those years have been since 2011. Since that year, he hasn't posted an above-average ERA, and his hits have steadily increased each year. His K-rate is still pretty sturdy, though, and the advanced stats do try to contend that he's been a bit unlucky since 2011 regarding factors like batting average on balls in play and HR/FB rate. Axford would probably be cheap, and he'd be an interesting gamble to take, but he'd be far from a surefire solution to a gap as a closer. Also, he's Canadian.
There are plenty of other options beyond that. Grant Balfour had a pretty solid couple of years with Oakland and is a free agent now, but he's 36, and projected to get around $9M per year, marginal savings over Johnson for a much bigger risk. Fernando Rodney is also aging (37) and showed some weak spots in 2013. Chris Perez got cut loose by Cleveland after both on- and off-field struggles. Kevin Gregg HAHAHAHAHAHA NO. Andrew Bailey is out there after struggling with both his health and performance in 2013. There are also former closers without recent success out there, like David Aardsma, Carlos Marmol, Kyle Farnsworth and Ryan Madson. Any (or maybe even more than one) of these guys could be a vintage Dan Duquette reclamation project if the price is right and the club's scouts see potential value -- but none is going to clearly improve the club immediately despite their cost savings.
If you can't tell, I'm a pretty big advocate of the Orioles signing Mujica. The Johnson trade right now looks like nothing but a straight salary dump, but snaring Mujica could make it look a lot smarter, and still leave a little extra cash to work on signing toward a major need, like left field or the starting rotation. If the Orioles lose out on Mujica, it's a lot tougher to see the team signing a proven closer, but maybe signing a couple guys like Axford and Perez would give the team enough options to feel comfortable heading into 2014, and again, still save money over what Johnson would've commanded. It will be an interesting process to watch -- but Orioles fans have to hope that Dan Duquette's machinations are just beginning, and will end with something more than minor league free agents and waiver claims for the closer position.