Entering this past offseason, Orioles’ Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette was placed in what seemed to be a difficult position. After saving at least 50 games in each of the past two seasons, closer Jim Johnson was in line for a steep salary increase thanks to arbitration. Duquette was on record saying that the Orioles would tender a contract to Johnson when the time came to do so, but the American League’s save leader was shipped to Oakland for second baseman Jemile Weeks just days before arbitration arrived.
At the time, it was rumored that Johnson’s 2014 salary would be in the range of $10.8 million, an increase from only $6.5 million the previous year. With possible contract extensions for Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy, and Matt Wieters looming, the Orioles were not about to dedicate ten percent of their payroll to a relief pitcher on the decline.
Never mind his 101 saves over the past two seasons, Johnson had blown nine saves and suffered eight losses in 2013, with the Orioles just six games removed from their second-consecutive playoff berth. It’s naïve to think that Johnson could convert every save opportunity, and if he did so, the Orioles would hae made the postseason, but his sole job is to close out the other team.
That alone is what has cost him his job in Oakland. After only five appearances in an Athletics uniform, Johnson was removed from the closer’s role in favor of a closer-by-committee. A’s manager Bob Melvin said that the 30-year-old Johnson simply needed a break to straighten himself out and relieve the pressure he’s put on himself with his new team.
To make matters worse, the Athletics are even more penny-pinching than the Orioles. In fact, their total payroll is roughly $20 million less than that of Baltimore’s, showing that the team has a vested interest in Johnson’s success. The second-highest paid player on their roster behind Yoenis Cespedes, Johnson is not a stranger to rough patches, however.
Johnson blew four saves in six-appearances in May, as well as three-consecutive opportunities in August, yet still managed to lead the league in saves. Since his demotion, Johnson has had two decent outings, but nothing worth the salary he commands.
Those who considered Johnson’s exit nothing more than a simple salary dump were correct, but should be happy that he is no longer giving up long balls in Camden Yards.
Meanwhile, the team has moved on without the former All-Star, handing the job to the much-maligned Tommy Hunter. The seven-year pro has taken his new role in stride, converting four of the five save opportunities he’s acquired this season. Although it is still early, Hunter has shown he’s able to shut down even the most potent lineup, topping out at speeds around 100 mph.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter has shown confidence in Hunter, but there is still a ways to go before the club knows if Hunter is the long-term answer in Baltimore. The job wasn’t his until the conclusion of spring training, so if Tommy Goes Boom in the near-future, who does Showalter rely on? That’s a question for another time, if it’s ever asked.
When Duquette traded Johnson, however, the Orioles weren’t expected to promote their closer from within the clubhouse. Instead, they signed free agent Grant Balfour to a two-year, $15 million contract, shortly after the trade with Oakland. However, the former Athletic did not pass a physical from team doctors, who noted concerns over his wrist and recovering knee.
Some believe that the Orioles were inactive for much of the offseason due to the way the organization was chastised for their handling of Balfour. Shortly thereafter, Balfour, who converted 38 saves in 41 chances last season, signed with division rival Tampa Bay.
It wasn’t again until February that the Orioles decided to make a splash in the free agency market, signing starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million deal. While Jimenez hasn’t lived up to the hype thus far, allowing four earned runs per start, it should be noted that the Orioles’ offense has failed to give the Cy Young candidate any run support, either.
Later that week, the club added hard-hitting outfielder Nelson Cruz into the fold with a one-year, $8 million deal. Cruz adds a power bat to an already potent Orioles lineup and leads the team in homeruns at the moment.
Without trading Johnson, it’s quite possible neither of the deals become reality. If the Orioles locked Johnson into a long-term deal, it’s likely that Jimenez is still with Cleveland. The same could be said of Cruz, who would still be in search of a job if Baltimore tendered Johnson a one-year deal.
While there are still gaps in Baltimore’s lineup, most notably at second base, the Orioles are in a much better place without Jim Johnson. There is the unknown factor to Tommy Hunter, but same could have been said about Johnson going into the 2012 season. Prior to his record-setting year, Johnson had recorded only two saves in his rookie season, as he wrestled the job away from journeyman Kevin Gregg.
At second base, the Orioles have used a platoon of players and have flirted with promoting Weeks from Triple-A Norfolk. Baltimore wasn’t looking to receive anything of note in return from Oakland, but any production from the former top prospect is a bonus. That in itself is testament to the club's perceived value of Johnson.