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Jim Johnson Trade Doesn't Improve Orioles' 2014 Outlook

December 3, 2013

There should be two major points of emphasis in the aftermath of the somewhat shocking Dec. 2 trade of Orioles closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics, neither of which speaks positively about the Orioles' early game plan for 2014.

1. The Orioles did not -- repeat, DID NOT -- "save" $10 million in this trade, as some reports might have you think.

2. Baltimore is not a better team today than it was Dec. 1. 

There is roughly $6 million coming off the books for the Orioles -- the difference between the salaries of Johnson and Jemile Weeks, the second baseman acquired as part of the exchange. Anybody who thinks that is going to help the O's get a frontline starting pitcher is in la-la land. What it might get them is about half of one year's salary for somebody such as starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo, whose track record says he will start 32-33 games and post a 13-12 record with a plus-four earned run average.

Orioles 2013: Jim Johnson
Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer/PressBox

Say what you want about Johnson's ability as a closer, and certainly more than enough has been said and will continue to be said, but he's more valuable than another potential .500 starting pitcher. To assess what he brought to the table, one has to step back and take a look at this deal from a reasonable distance. To do so, one has to apply some guidelines:

• Remove age and/or salary considerations from the equation.

• Forget about potential, upside, team control, et al.

Now, pretend you are the general manager of an American League East team (or any other for that matter), and ask yourself this question: "If I had my choice of any pitcher on the Orioles' staff (before Dec. 1, of course) to improve my team immediately, who would it be?"

I dare you to name three before getting to the guy who was just traded for Weeks and the dreaded Player To Be Named Later. In fact, to be honest about it, I'd be shocked if you got beyond one. (I'm giving props here to starter Chris Tillman's projected ability to be a winner as well as the beloved innings eater.)

Now, just to level the discussion field a little, let's get to the crux of the controversy and enter economics into the discussion. You'll get no argument here that closers tend to be overpaid, and Johnson almost certainly was going to fit into that category via the arbitration process.

But something needs to be addressed here -- the widely accepted (both written and stated) notion that Johnson stood to make in excess of $10 million in 2014 (the actual number was $10.8M) is nothing more than an estimation put on the table by, an aggressive website that, as its name implies, is full of predictions. 

That's not a number written in stone, guaranteed to happen, certainly not a number the club would be obligated to meet -- or a number that might be reached through negotiation. At best, it is a guesstimate of where negotiations will end up, as was the $26 million, two-year deal projected for Joe Nathan leading up to his signing with the Tigers Dec. 3. Nathan has a history of arm issues and converted 43 of 46 save opportunities for the Rangers in 2013.

Based on Johnson's MLB-leading 51 saves (out of 54 chances) in 2012, he got an over-the-top $4 million raise to $6.5 million for 2013. And, it should be noted, that was not a salary determined in arbitration, but one both parties agreed upon before the process even started -- in other words, it was a figure the Orioles offered, and Johnson accepted. 

If money was the only criterion here, as most will insist as the debate rages, then the O's should have taken their stand a year ago before committing to a 200 percent raise. The Orioles have a track record of winning arbitration cases -- but their players have still gotten healthy raises, usually as part of pre-hearing settlements. This seems to be one the club declined, despite earlier pronouncements that it would tender contracts to all arbitration-eligible players.

The Orioles may have felt Johnson would push their salary structure too far north, though there hasn't been evidence of significant negotiations, including the possibility of a two-year contract, which would have pushed free agency back a year.

Left looking for a suitor for Johnson, Baltimore found one in an unlikely place. Lo and behold, who should show up in time to absorb this financial distraction but Oakland general manager Billy Beane, the skinflint mastermind behind "Moneyball." He is the shoestring and duct tape wizard charged with the duty of holding together the penniless and almost homeless Oakland Athletics, who, by the way, have won the American League West two years in a row.

Beane is a certified budget master, who on Dec. 2 gave a $22 million, two-year contract to Scott Kazmir, a pitcher who should have been on the Orioles' radar and was away from organized baseball for two years before launching a 2013 comeback with Cleveland. Now, Beane will be charged with the task of either fitting Johnson into his budget or flipping him come spring training.

Beane is losing closer Grant Balfour, who converted 38 of 41 saves in 2013 and is looking for a multi-year deal that is estimated to double his $4.5 million 2013 salary, and it will be interesting to see how Johnson fits into Oakland's picture.

Something lost in the translation of Johnson's "off" year in 2013, when he led baseball in both saves (50) and blown saves (nine), is another telling statistic, which many have somehow ignored. As a team, the Orioles ranked third in MLB in 2013 with 27 blown saves, which is a serious indictment not only of the starting rotation (for starters leaving a lot of early traffic jams), but also the entire bullpen, supposedly one of the team's strengths.

General manager Dan Duquette had said repeatedly that the Orioles would offer Johnson a contract, which technically they did not, instead making the trade minutes before the midnight deadline for tendering.

In retrospect, I think the Orioles' cause for 2014 would have been better served if Duquette had either taken the approach of Beane or non-tendering Johnson and then trying to negotiate a multi-year deal that would work for both sides. 

The irony in all of this is that more than a few people suggest Johnson, who was a starter throughout his minor league career, would be worth the money more in that capacity than as a closer. It was a possibility the Orioles reportedly considered before making the decision to part with one of the best arms the organization has produced during the last 10 years. Before it's all finished, the Orioles might be a better team in 2014, but it won't be because of this trade -- or because of the dollars saved at the arbitration table.

Jim Henneman can be reached at