If you went to bed early last night, you woke up this morning to the news that the Orioles suddenly have an opening at closer.
In a trade that was literally made in the 11th hour prior to Monday’s midnight tender deadline, the Orioles dealt closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for infielder Jemile Weeks and a player to be named later.
It became clearer over the past few days that the Orioles were growing uncomfortable with paying Johnson more than $10 million, which was likely what he’d receive once the club tendered him a contract.
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Even though clearing up Johnson’s salary makes it easier for the Orioles to pursue a big-ticket free agent, it doesn’t mean they will use that money to do so.
Johnson’s struggles last season were well documented, but now the Orioles must figure out how to replace 101 saves over the past two years.
So where do they come from?
Internally: The easiest solution is to move right-hander Tommy Hunter to the closer spot. Hunter flourished last season in his first full season as a reliever, and his power stuff plays well for the role, but some in the organization aren’t sold that Hunter can handle the closer load.
Preserving one-run leads in the AL East on a regular basis isn’t easy, and while Johnson’s 57.7 percent ground-ball percentage played well in the role, Hunter has a penchant for giving up the longball and only has a 39 percent groundball rate.
Also, if Hunter is moved to the closer role, who replaces him in the set-up role he shares with right-hander Darren O’Day (who is likely not a candidate to close)? That’s not as difficult a question because those roles tend to morph over the course of the season.
Still, there could be other closing options among the existing pitching staff.
Free Agency: The main reason the Orioles felt they had to deal Johnson was because his projected salary was exceeding the market norm for closers.
The Orioles could make a play for any number of free-agent closers – Edward Mujica, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit and Joel Hanrahan among them – and still pay a lower annual salary than what Johnson would have cost in 2014. Most of those names would likely require a multi-year deal commitment, though, which is a risk considering how disposable closers can be.
Monday’s tender deadline also created a new group of free agents that include intriguing late-inning relievers like John Axford and Ronald Belisario.
Keep in mind that the Orioles' past two attempts to find closers through free agency – their signings of Kevin Gregg and Mike Gonzalez – didn’t really work out. They fared much better transitioning former starters into the closer role, like that did with Koji Uehara and Johnson.
Trade: This is probably the least likely possibility of the three, but expect executive vice president Dan Duquette to gauge possible trade partners during next week’s winter meetings in Orlando.
This is also the least likely option because, now that the Orioles have dealt Johnson, they don’t have very many trade chips that aren’t relievers. It doesn’t appear that they’re going to deal Matt Wieters or J.J. Hardy.
Regardless of how the Orioles replace him, Johnson will be missed. He was one of the veteran leaders in the clubhouse, especially among the relievers. He was not only the club’s union representative, but Orioles manager Buck Showalter allows his players to police the clubhouse, and Johnson was one of the players entrusted with those responsibilities.
And he was always accountable throughout his struggles, always making himself available to reporters after a rough outing.