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Will Jim Johnson be on the Orioles in 2014?

Will the Orioles take the Mark Reynolds approach with their struggling closer this offseason?


One of the more interesting stories of the Orioles' 2012/2013 offseason -- which saw Dan Duquette largely bring the 2012 team back for another year -- was that of Mark Reynolds. Reynolds was an enigma in 2012, with a bat that declined just a bit from his 2011 production, a complete defensive meltdown at third base and then finding an adequate home at first base. Taking the entire season combined, Reynolds was essentially a replacement-level player in 2012 (0.2 WAR at Baseball Reference and -0.1 WAR at Fangraphs). With 2013 being Reynolds' final year of arbitration, which would lead to a big raise over the $7.5M he made in 2012, the Orioles chose to non-tender him rather than pick him up at a projected $13M or so, a decision most fans understood. The team also, by all accounts, chose not to negotiate with him during their exclusive window, a decision that fans understood a bit less, and he ended up with the Indians on a $6M deal.

The decision has looked good in retrospect, as Reynolds put up negative WAR in Cleveland before getting cut and picked up by the Yankees and salvaging some decent time in their bandbox of a park. Still, cumulatively for 2013, Reynolds has once again been right around replacement level when you add up his power, patience, poor contact skills and lackluster defense.

Looking at the Orioles' current roster, they will once again head into next season with a lot of players getting pay bumps in arbitration, and probably a limit on payroll flexibility (even with $10M from Brian Roberts and $7M from Jason Hammel coming off the books). And the one player who's starting to look the most like Mark Reynolds is the team's struggling closer, Jim Johnson.

2014 will be Johnson's final year of arbitration, and he's making $6.5M in 2013 while logging performance that's just a shade above replacement level (0.7 bWAR, 0.4 fWAR). With his traditional stats looking a bit off from his peak last year, but still not terrible (3.45 ERA, 41 saves so far), it's reasonable to expect that he'd get a healthy raise in arbitration. The formulas that estimate arbitration salaries very well aren't in for this offseason yet, but I'm assuming $8-9M for Johnson.

When you look at the Orioles' frustrating 2013 so far, there's plenty of blame to go around for the team being on the outside looking in for an AL Wild Card slot, but to the extent that one player can shoulder the blame right now, Johnson's the guy. Saves might be an overblown statistic, but a blown save is still a really bad thing when finishing a ballgame is your primary responsibility -- and Johnson has nine of them after blowing just three in 2012. It's largely on Johnson that the 2013 club is 15-25 in one-run games, rather than near .500 as one might expect. No matter how you slice it, if the Orioles had gotten last year's results out of Johnson, or had switched to another able closer sooner, they'd probably be in the Wild Card picture right now. He's having one of the best strikeout years of his career, but one of the worst years in walks, hits and home runs per nine innings. His sinker has just looked flat and hittable during his lousy stretches, and a sinker that doesn't sink is a batting practice pitch much of the time.

Even if Johnson goes back toward his career norms in 2014 (which is not unlikely, given the historical fickleness of relief pitcher performance from year to year), he's typically only been a 2-WAR player or so, depending on the system you use. Looking at an $8M salary for Johnson next year gets pretty unpalatable through that lens.

The team runs into a couple of problems, though, if it decides to go another way. As much hate gets piled on the "closer" designation, let's just be honest: Every manager wants a closer, and the Orioles don't have an obvious one on the roster. Tommy Hunter has had a very good season, but he's still homer-prone, and he's been really bad in back-to-back appearances all year (for which closers are often called upon). Darren O'Day is a pretty consistently good reliever, but his platoon splits to lefties are a big alarm bell right now; teams normally want a closer with relatively even splits. Francisco Rodriguez is only in Baltimore as a rental player. So, if the Orioles decide to cut ties with Johnson, that leaves them with the less-than-appealing options of picking up a closer in free agency (which likely wouldn't be all that much cheaper than sticking with Johnson) or hoping that an in-house option fluctuates into a shutdown season next year.

The other problem is one of perception. Dan Duquette doesn't seem to stress this very much, but cutting or trading Jim Johnson would be taken by some fans as a sign that the team is "selling" or throwing in the towel on contending in 2014. I'm certain that the Orioles aren't viewing 2014 as a rebuilding year, but even a deserving cut like Reynolds was poorly received by much of the fanbase last offseason, so Duquette will have to offset any plan to move Johnson out of Baltimore with some equally important "buyer" moves.

Nonetheless, if I had to break out my crystal ball, I think Johnson will get traded this offseason. It's hard to say what his value will be on the trade market, but unlike Reynolds last year, he should still garner interest given his history as a closer, something teams are always hunting for. If the Orioles can't find the right trade partner, though, I'm not sure I can see them cutting Johnson like they did Reynolds. Johnson has a much longer history of performance, and tenure as an Oriole, than Reynolds ever did. I'm not sure he's a guy the team will just non-tender if they can't work out something else. Orioles fans could easily spend 2014 holding onto their butts whenever they hear "The Pretender" come on over the Camden Yards PA system, and the team might be spending even more for the privilege.