It's understandably hard for Orioles fans to look past Jim Johnson's consecutive 50-save seasons, especially given that the club received an uninspiring infielder Monday night in exchange for its closer.
But this trade had little to do with the relative strengths of Johnson and second baseman Jemile Weeks. Instead, it was a commentary on our evolving understanding of the value of closers.
Simply put, there are many more pitchers capable of closing effectively than there are closer jobs. Short relievers, even good ones such as Johnson, aren’t a premium product in the major leagues. So it becomes unpalatable for a mid-market team — and the Orioles definitely behave as that, whether fans like it or not — to allot 10-percent of its payroll to a closer.
Was the trade a salary dump? Sure, but at least it was a salary dump grounded in a sound understanding of which positions merit high-end money.
Smart teams have learned to let established closers walk and to replace them with the next strong arm in the bullpen or from the minor leagues.
Just look at this year’s World Series teams. The Cardinals used Trevor Rosenthal as their closer in the playoffs, ignoring the fact he’d saved exactly three games in his career. The Red Sox used Koji Uehara, who had spent only a brief stretch as a closer (with the Orioles) in his previous four seasons.
Both pitched brilliantly.
Look at the best ninth-inning guys from last season and you’ll find few who’ve done the job long-term. The Mariano Riveras and Joe Nathans are the exceptions, not the ruleNone of this is intended as a slam on Johnson, a fine pitcher whose performance last season wasn’t as large a fall-off as many fans perceived.
He isn’t a prototype short reliever, because he doesn’t pile up strikeouts. Batters put the ball in play off Johnson, and that means he’s more subject to the vagaries of defense and fortune than a Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman. But he limits walks and home runs enough to be plenty effective. He’s moving to a more pitcher-friendly ballpark, so don’t be surprised if he posts a strong statistical season in 2014.
He’s also a clubhouse leader who didn’t shy away from scrutiny during his spates of blown saves.
The thing is, Johnson himself proves the greater point about closers. He had never saved more than 10 games in a season before he saved 51 in 2012. He was an ex-starter who had been effective in a set-up role. The Orioles didn’t touch him with a magic wand. He was a good reliever who remained a good reliever when thrust into a higher-profile role.
There’s no reason the club can’t do the same thing with another pitcher, whether it’s Darren O’Day or Tommy Hunter or someone not yet acquired.
As for Weeks, he’s a former first-round pick who showed decent on-base skills in 2011. Other than that, it’s hard to see a lot to be excited about.
Could the Orioles have waited for a better market to develop on Johnson? Perhaps. But this was a decision about roster priorities, and in that light it makes sense.