With the Orioles preparing to finish their season Sept. 29, it's not too early to look ahead at how the Birds' front office will reshape the roster during the offseason.
One of the most pressing issues, the status of closer Jim Johnson, won't remain a mystery for long.
General manager Dan Duquette told reporters Sept. 27 that the Orioles intend to tender a contract to Johnson, who is arbitration-eligible for the third and final time this winter.
Johnson, who earned $6.5 million in 2013, will likely get a raise of roughly $2 million. Johnson got a raise of nearly $4 million after the 2012 season, during which he converted 51 of 54 save opportunities. This time around, his raise likely won't be as substantial, but could still have him earning close to $9 million in 2014.
For an Orioles team that doesn't spend money as freely as the divisional budget-busters Yankees and Red Sox, I can't help but wonder whether it's a wise move to pay $9 million for a closer -- especially one coming off a career-worst year. Although Johnson leads the American League in saves for the second straight year -- notching 48 as of Sept. 27 -- he also has the ignominy of leading the majors in blown saves with nine.
It's fair to say that Johnson's struggles in 2013 are a major reason why the Orioles will be sitting at home in October instead of returning to the postseason. The O's have absorbed an ugly nine losses when leading after eight innings; the major league average is about three. If Johnson had blown four or five saves instead of nine, the Orioles would likely still be in the thick of the postseason chase and perhaps would've clinched a playoff spot already.
That's not to say that Johnson can't rebound in 2014. Relief pitchers are notoriously volatile, often alternating years of effectiveness and ineffectiveness seemingly at random. And there's no reason to think Johnson's career has fallen off a table, considering that many of his numbers were as good, if not better, in 2013 as in his stupendous 2012 season.
Johnson's strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate has rocketed to 7.1 this year after a 5.4 mark in 2012. His home run rate and walk rate are slightly higher in 2013, but not dramatically so. At 30 years old, Johnson could have many effective years of relieving left in him.
The issue -- as it often does -- boils down to money. The O's have proven that they're not going to be a big-spending team. You can speculate about the reasons -- whether it's Duquette being risk-averse with large contracts, owner Peter Angelos being fiscally conservative with payroll or whatever else -- the O's consistently have a budget that lags behind other major league powerhouses. So they need to make sure they allocate their money in the most effective way possible.
To me, spending big money on relievers isn't the best use of resources. Relief pitchers are a commodity that can be grown from within rather than bought for big bucks on the free-agent market. If you peruse through major league rosters, you'll find plenty of shutdown relief pitchers who came up through a team's farm system at little to no cost -- often these pitchers are former failed starters who found new life in the bullpen.
Consider the Orioles' Tommy Hunter, for example. As a starting pitcher, he was barely major league quality. But once he converted to relief, he added a few extra miles per hour to his fastball and became a reliable -- and low-cost -- force out of the bullpen. Just this year, pitchers such as Kevin Gausman and Josh Stinson have pitched effectively in relief after struggling as starters. That's not to say that any of these pitchers would necessarily be as effective as Johnson, but it's an example of how it's possible to find low-cost solutions in the bullpen.
The Orioles, as currently constructed, have a few holes to fill this offseason. They'll need a second baseman, one or two outfielders, a designated hitter and a starting pitcher or three. Some of those holes will likely be filled by in-house candidates, but the Orioles would be well served to look for better -- and yes, more expensive -- solutions on the free agent or trade market as well. These holes -- unlike the bullpen -- can't all be filled with cheap, in-house alternatives. The O's will need to shell out some money for upgrades, but have a tight budget with which to operate.
Every penny counts. For the Orioles, whatever money they have available to spend should go toward position players and starting pitchers, not relievers. A $9 million commitment to Jim Johnson seems awfully steep, given their circumstances. And in 2013, Johnson hasn't pitched like a $9 million closer. Unless the Orioles can agree to non-tender Johnson and re-sign him for a lower salary, it might be best to part ways with him.