If you watched your fair share of Orioles games in 2013, you saw a good amount of negative outings from the team’s closer, Jim Johnson. Nine blown saves leading to eight total losses, Johnson was a shaky back end option for Buck Showalter, though the Birds skipper stuck with him until the end. Showalter made it apparent in each post game presser, and moreover through his apparent decisions, that he believed in Johnson for the ninth inning role. The job to shut down the opposing team in a save situation was Johnson’s each and every day, even if Showalter has been known to gravitate toward his self-generated notion of the win rule. As Showalter spoke on various occasions in 2012 regarding his selection of a closer, he pressed forward with his plan to win games regardless of the statistical nuances. Thus fans grew concerned throughout 2013, as Johnson proved shaky throughout the month of May, posting a 9.75 ERA amid his limited chances in 13 appearances, allowing three home runs and raising one simple question: who’s next?
We can recall his preposterous series out at Chase Field in Arizona, blowing two saves in a row against a Diamondbacks squad pushing .500 only four days after his last appearance, yet another blown save to the scuffling San Francisco Giants on their home turf. Gravitating back to that disastrous May, Johnson blew three saves in a row during that month as well. Johsnon was the man at fault for losses to the Padres, Rays, and Yankees allowed eight earned runs in just two and a third innings, all at his home ballpark.
With a 2013 salary of $6.5 million, Johnson was becoming tough to maintain control of due to the rising costs of pitching and the available options on the market at lesser prices with similar abilities. With his struggles at the forefront almost weekly in Baltimore, it almost seemed illogical to ever think of Johnson coming back for 2014. And as the season came to a close, it should have been quite obvious.
Arbitration committees and baseball agents alike push the shiny statistics like saves and ERA on ownership. Regardless of his unsteady year, Johnson was set to get a raise. And as MLB Trade Rumors predicted, Johnson was on the hook for a salary in the range of $10-$11 million in 2014. As Matt Swartz pointed out, “Last year, Johnson set the record for a closer with his service time during his third year through the arbitration process, earning a $3.875MM raise on top of his $2.625MM salary.”
Ten percent of the Orioles payroll dedicated to a relief pitcher? Wasn’t the goal to acquire starting pitching and shift the focus to that side of the mound, as the Birds were in the bottom third of baseball in practically all starting pitching statistics in 2013?
Things started shaking up as the season geared down.
Executive vice president Dan Duquette went on record back on September 27, confirming that the Orioles planned to tender a contract to Johnson when the time came to do so.
Where was the logic? Regardless of his numbers, was Johnson legitimately worth the salary of which he was about to command? Joe Nathan is expected to receive in the realm of $13 million per season on the open market currently; is Johnson on the same plane as the likes of Nathan? Is he comparable to Rafael Soriano who received two years and $28 million from the Washington Nationals?
Fast forward to last night, December 2. Rumors swarmed earlier in the day that Johnson was being heavily shopped, with the Dodgers being his primary suitor. In the end, he was sent to the Oakland Athletics. The return for Johnson was second baseman Jemile Weeks.
At midnight, teams reached a deadline to announce whether or not they would be tendering contracts out to their arbitration-eligible players. It could have been a coincidence, but one has to imagine that this move was out of desperation. Duquette had to have been frenzied with Johnson still on the books. And after announcing three months earlier that Johnson would be tendered, he could not easily go back on those words.
Realistically, was Johnson ever going to be tendered? Though there is not much wiggle room in debating whether or not Duquette could have reeled in a more impressive haul for the Johnson City, NY, native, we will never know where negotiations could have gone. Could the Orioles have pried away an outfielder from the Dodgers in a theoretical payroll swap?
Straightforwardly, the Orioles had no interest in bringing back Johnson in 2014 for such a high monetary commitment. Duquette has done a practical job over the past months in covering up his true intentions, and who is to blame him?
So here we are now, with Jemile Weeks coming to Baltimore to compete for the starting job at second base while Johnson will be the closer entering Spring Training with the Athletics. Billy Beane can afford the added payroll out in Oakland, even on top of the $22 million handed over to Scott Kazmir earlier in the day, as the positional lineup for the A’s along with a young pitching core is relatively low cost.
Fluctuating in bullpen roles over the years with the Orioles, Johnson has had a decent career thus far jogging out to the Foo Fighters’ classic, “The Pretender.” It is no secret that Showalter ran Johnson into the ground in recent years after the hurler recorded 91 innings in relief in 2011. Duquette and Baltimore’s front office simply fell victim to the arbitration process and the lasting outcomes that remind us that in the end, baseball is a business.