The Orioles’ offseason overhaul took some time to gain steam, but two moves in one day have added a little more clarity to the team’s roster for next season.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Orioles agreed to a two-year, $15 million deal with former Oakland Athletics closer Grant Balfour, according to industry sources, and also learned that their most tenured player, second baseman Brian Roberts, had agreed to a one-year, $2 million deal, plus incentives, with the rival New York Yankees.
Balfour, who turns 36 later this month, will replace previous closer Jim Johnson, whom the Orioles traded to Oakland on Dec. 2 for infielder Jemile Weeks and minor league catcher David Freitas.
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The Orioles had attempted to close a deal with Balfour for the past several days — going back to Major League Baseball's winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., last week — with a guaranteed third year in the contract as the major sticking point. It is believed that Balfour turned down a third-year vesting option in order to sign with the Orioles.
Since the deal is pending, Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette didn't comment on Balfour specificially, but said the club is moving toward filling its closer need.
“There's more work to be done, but we're making good progress toward that,” Duquette said. “We're continuing to build our pitching staff. A lot of the groundwork we laid at the winter meetings will help us accomplish that. Sometimes you're able to make deals at the winter meetings and sometimes you lay the groundwork for future deals.”
The Orioles traded the 30-year-old Johnson, who had 50 saves in 59 opportunities in 2013, because he was projected to receive roughly $10 million through the arbitration process in 2014. The club didn’t believe it could sign Johnson to an affordable extension and hoped to use that money to make improvements in other areas in what Duquette termed a “reallocation of resources.”
Ultimately, the Orioles chose to spend much of it on Balfour, a veteran reliever from Australia who has converted 62 of 67 save opportunities since becoming the Athletics’ full-time closer in 2012.
Once he passes a physical, Balfour will receive $7 million in each of the next two years and an additional $1 million in deferred salary, according to an industry source. The right-hander, who throws a fastball that averages 93 mph and a hard slider, will anchor the back of the bullpen and allow Tommy Hunter and Darren O’Day to remain in set-up roles.
Balfour has a strong track record of late-inning work over the past four seasons, pitching to a 2.47 ERA in 112 relief appearances over that span. He had a career-high 38 saves in 41 opportunities last season for the Athletics, and saved 24 games in 2012. Over that time, Balfour has a 2.56 ERA, a 1.049 WHIP and an average of 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings.
The Athletics won the American League West division in both years with Balfour as the team’s closer. He also served as a key member of the bullpen for the Tampa Bay Rays as they advanced to the World Series in 2008, so he comes to Baltimore with postseason experience and is familiar with pitching in the AL East from his four seasons with Tampa Bay from 2007 to 2010.
When Balfour was traded to Tampa Bay from the Milwaukee Brewers in July 2007, he joined his fourth organization in three years and was two years removed from reconstructive elbow surgery, but he emerged as a lockdown reliever in 2008, going 6-2 with a 1.54 ERA in 58 1/3 relief innings with the Rays.
Balfour’s addition stabilizes the bullpen, while Roberts’ departure eliminates one cloud that loomed over the Orioles’ offseason and likely makes Ryan Flaherty the favorite to become the starting second baseman in 2014.
The 36-year-old Roberts, who was drafted by the Orioles in 1999 and made his debut in 2001, likely would have started at second base and batted in the leadoff spot if he returned to the organization, despite the variety of injuries he suffered during his four-year, $40-million contract that expired after the 2013 season. Instead, he’ll join the Yankees to help replace superstar second baseman Robinson Cano, who left New York to sign a 10-year, $240-million deal with the Seattle Mariners this month.
Roberts played in just 118 games through the first 3 1/2 years of his contract — sidelined by multiple concussions, back and hip injuries and a hamstring injury sustained in the third game of the regular season this year. But he returned in June and played in 77 total games, showing flashes of his former All-Star prowess, especially in the season’s final month.
“I got to see glimpses of it, from the other dugout and from ours,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Roberts’ revival. “I had a good relationship with him, and he did a lot of good things for the Orioles and for the city. … I wish him well.”
Roberts didn’t return multiple calls Tuesday, but in September, he told The Baltimore Sun that he wanted to end his career with the Orioles.
“I would obviously love to play my whole career in one place,” Roberts said at the time. “The organization has stood behind me through a lot of stuff, and now that we’ve got this organization going in the right direction, it’s a great place to be and a great place to be a part of. Certainly, if I had all my choices, this would be the first one.”
The Orioles were recently in touch with Roberts’ representatives, according to a source, but they weren’t given the opportunity to match the Yankees’ offer.
Roberts’ departure means second base is likely the 27-year-old Flaherty’s job to lose, though Weeks, recently acquired minor leaguer Cord Phelps and top infield prospect Jonathan Schoop could be in the mix for that spot, as well as the role of utility infielder. The Orioles are also expected to announce a minor league deal this week with Ivan De Jesus Jr., who may get a chance to compete for a job in the spring.
With Roberts departing, the Orioles’ most likely and most experienced leadoff hitter is right fielder Nick Markakis, who handled the role at times in 2012 and 2013. In 88 games batting in the leadoff spot, Markakis has hit .329 with a .375 on-base percentage.
The club’s candidates to leadoff could expand depending on what the Orioles do to fill some of their other holes. They don’t have a left fielder or designated hitter right now — with oft-injured Nolan Reimold likely filling one of those roles if healthy — so they are still seeking another left-handed hitter, likely via trade, as well as an additional starting pitcher.