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Thoughts on Orioles closer Jim Johnson and a return to starting

Back in September, Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said definitively that closer Jim Johnson would be tendered a contract and return next season.

After leading the American League in both saves (50) and blown saves (9) in 2013, Johnson figures to receive a hefty raise during his final year of arbitration eligibility. Projections suggest a salary in the $10 million range.

Most teams don’t spend that much for a closer. Only four closers were paid $10 million or more last season, and all four were signed to lengthy free-agent deals. Most closers don’t reach that kind of money through the arbitration process because closers as a whole are so interchangable.

Of those four closers who made $10 million in 2013, one of them is the best of all time: the recently-retired Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees. Another, the Chicago Cubs’ Carlos Marmol, lost his closing job to former Oriole Kevin Gregg. The other two were the Philadelphia Phillies’ Jonathan Papelbon and the Washington Nationals’ Rafael Soriano.

The free-agent closers available this offseason -- Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Fernando Rodney, Brian Wilson and Edward Mujica -- would likely require multi-year commitments, but most of them could probably be had for a lower annual salary than $10 million.

And since most clubs don’t pay their closer that kind of money, it sure makes it difficult for the Orioles to compete to sign a free-agent starting pitcher while spending so much on the bullpen.

That leads us to dangling the idea of converting Johnson into a starter. The Orioles obviously have a need in the rotation, but there’s no guarantee that a return to starting would be a good fit for Johnson.

The bigger question is who saves games for the Orioles, if not Johnson? Despite popular fan sentiment, it is uncertain that Tommy Hunter could fit into that role.

So what do you do with Johnson?

Looking at Johnson last season, there was a span in the middle of the season when he struggled with his control and confidence. He also made 74 appearances last season and was on pace to make more before his appearances waned in the final two months of the season.

But there were far too many games in which Johnson faced a save situation when he probably shouldn’t have.

Simply put, the Orioles played in too many close games.

There were too many times when a four-run lead became a three- or two-run lead because of runs allowed in the later innings by relief pitchers or because starters didn’t go deep enough.

And there were too many times when the Orioles had the opportunity to extend three- or four-run leads but were unable to break a game open because they stranded runners in scoring position.

That’s obviously not a reason to pay Johnson $10 million next season, but if they are going to tender him as Duquette said at the end of the season, the Orioles will have to find ways to get the most for their money.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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