If you're waiting for the Jim Johnson trade to fit nicely into some offseason master plan that makes perfect sense, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
The puzzle pieces are starting to fit together, and it looks like they’re going to create a picture that Orioles fans are not going to like. It certainly appears that Orioles ownership is holding the purse strings so tightly that executive vice president Dan Duquette had to sidestep a costly arbitration process with a deal that sent a 50-save closer to the Oakland Athletics for relatively little in return.
There doesn’t seem to be any other explanation for that, since Duquette announced unequivocally in late September that Johnson would be tendered a contract and would start the season as the Orioles' closer in 2014. Presumably, Duquette wouldn’t have painted himself into that kind of corner, so the only reasonable assumption is that owner Peter Angelos or someone else above the general manager level decided they didn’t want to pay him $10 million next year.
That is an ownership prerogative, and it isn’t entirely illogical. Johnson blew a lot of saves last year, and there’s a fair case to be made that he isn’t worth $10 million. But the way this went down might have prevented the Orioles from realizing his full value as a tradeable commodity. That’s the crime here, if there is one.
Angelos insists that’s not the case. He said in a telephone interview on Thurday afternoon that he had nothing to do with that specific decision and that the makeup of the Orioles roster is entirely the jurisdiction of Duquette and manager Buck Showalter.
“That decision is up to the manager and general manager,’’ Angelos said. “Do we talk about economic decisions? Overall, yes, but not specifically about individual moves. Fundamentally, those decisions are their decisions.”
Duquette, reached via telephone late Thursday, said he made the decision after finding little interest from other clubs in absorbing Johnson’s likely 2014 salary, and that he made the best deal he could make. He denied that he was ordered to make the decision, though other front-office sources have indicated that his hand was forced.
Angelos "is the chairman of the club,’’ Duquette said. “He listens to his baseball people, and this was a baseball decision. We’re all committed to putting a competitive team on the field. When the club decides to reallocate resources, there’s a good reason for that.”
Still, there have been indications for months that Angelos and his sons have become more involved in the day-to-day operations of the team. The upper office at the Warehouse was reconfigured recently to include an office for Angelos. It is the office previously occupied by Duquette, but it is also the office originally assigned to Angelos before Andy MacPhail was hired and the late Mike Flanagan was still a front-office executive. That won’t stop people from whispering that the owner is meddling again, but Angelos said he still spends almost all his work time at the law office.
Of course, Angelos has every right to make whatever decisions about the team that he wants to make, but things have been going so well over the past two years under Duquette and manager Buck Showalter that this should be an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it situation.
During the 14 straight years the Orioles spent under .500, Angelos was pilloried in Baltimore for his inability to successfully manage what was once one of the strongest franchises in the American League. The main criticism was that he seemed to be micromanaging in areas better left to baseball professionals, and he seemed to turn a corner when he hired MacPhail and gave him more control over the operation of the team.
To this day, Angelos claims that media portrayals of his supposed micromanaging were “grossly inaccurate,” and he defends the club’s refusal to jack the budget up dramatically to compete with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
“There are limitations,’’ he said. “This is not New York City. We’re not the New York Yankees. We certainly would like to be in that discussion. We’ve got loyal fans and we’re doing our best to put together the best possible team in a limited market.”