Fate has not been friendly to the Orioles so far this offseason, but frustration might have reached its peak on Friday, when the team cut ties with a player who would have been its prize acquisition of the hot-stove season, further compounding the club's star-crossed December.
The Orioles officially parted ways with free-agent closer Grant Balfour on Friday when executive vice president Dan Duquette announced the club was diving back into the free-agent closer market after team doctors were not satisfied with the results of Balfour's pre-signing physical.
"From the Orioles' perspective, we're going to look at our other options and we're going to turn our attention elsewhere," Duquette said. "This conversation we had [in attempting to sign Balfour] did not result in adding a player to the ballclub, so we're going to turn our attention somewhere else."
The sudden change in plans caps a month in which the Orioles traded away 50-save closer Jim Johnson and saw free agents Nate McLouth and Scott Feldman sign elsewhere. Career Oriole Brian Roberts agreed to a deal with the Yankees this week and just an hour before Duquette was to address the Balfour situation Friday, Major League Baseball announced that left-hander Troy Patton will miss the first 25 games of next season while serving a suspension for amphetamine use.
Despite all of that, the biggest hit is Balfour, who had agreed to terms on a two-year, $15-million deal after converting 62 of 67 save opportunities the past two seasons with the Oakland Athletics. But the deal was pending a physical, and team doctors were concerned with the health of his surgically-repaired right shoulder, several industry sources told The Sun Thursday.
On Friday, Duquette wouldn't talk about what was specifically disconcerting about Balfour's physical.
"There's not a lot the team can say publicly," he said. "The only thing I can tell you is that the club was not satisfied with the results, and we're not going into the particulars of what the specific club concerns were. I can tell you that the players go through a very, very thorough screening and that our medical people are thorough, and [they] gave us their evaluation.
"I can also tell you these processes and these opinions vary from club to club and doctor to doctor, but that's really all I can say about the situation."
Balfour's agent, Seth Levinson, released a statement Friday saying that two other major league team orthopedists reviewed MRIs of Balfour's shoulder and said he was healthy.
"Factor into the equation that Grant was a 2013 All-Star, pitched 65 games and another three scoreless innings in the postseason with a 94-95 mph fastball [and] the only reasonable conclusion is that Grant is healthy and the Orioles at the last moment changed their minds," Levinson's statement said.
However, the Orioles are known to have very stringent standards when conducting their physicals. Over the years, the club has had deals in place with players such as Jeromy Burnitz, Xavier Hernandez and Aaron Sele, only to have medical issues — or medical-related contract issues — sever the agreements.
And regarding Balfour, who turns 36 later this month, all three Orioles team doctors concurred that they were concerned about Balfour's shoulder, according to a source.
Balfour had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in May 2005. Four months later, he had surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff in his shoulder, costing him the entire 2006 season.
"Our scouts evaluate the players' skill and ability and capability to help the team," Duquette said. "But our medical staff evaluations are a vital part of our process, especially when we're going to make a significant financial investment in Orioles players. If we do our job right, we align those interests consistently so the club signs players who are available to contribute to the team during the entire term of their contract."
Efforts to reach Balfour on Friday were unsuccessful, but he told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was baffled by the Orioles' findings.
"I'm 100 percent fine," Balfour told the newspaper. "My shoulder is fine, everything is fine. I'm ready to come out in the ninth inning, close games, do what I do. … I don't know what's going on, I guess they chose to go another route. All I know is that I'm fine. No different from last season, no different from three years ago."
On Friday morning, Balfour visited Tampa Bay Rays team orthopedist Koco Eaton to get another opinion. Eaton was Balfour's team doctor for four years when he pitcher for the Rays and also performed Balfour's physical exam on behalf of the Oakland Athletics to complete his two-year, $8.1 million deal with the A's.
Eaton said an MRI performed Friday morning showed "absolutely no change" from the one taken three years ago before he signed with Oakland.
"He has pitched in the big leagues for three years with the same MRI findings he had three years ago," Eaton said. "Was the MRI normal? No. But there's never been a normal MRI for someone who throws a baseball for a living. We always see something. His MRI was normal for him. … But there's no change from his physical exam or his MRI from the one that was done three years ago in the same situation."
Eaton was careful not to criticize the Orioles' findings, but said Balfour's health is no worse than it was three years ago, and he did not miss time for arm issues in his three years in Oakland.
"I understand their concerns completely," Eaton said. "And unfortunately, these tests do not predict the future. All they do is give us a snapshot. But I could look at him and say, 'You're just as healthy today as you were three years ago when you were going to pitch for Oakland A's.' That's the thing I want to be clear about Grant."
Tim Kremchek, the Cincinnati Reds' medical director and renowned orthopedic surgeon, performed right elbow and shoulder surgeries on Balfour in 2005.
At the request of Balfour's agent, Kremchek said he received the MRIs of Balfour's elbow and shoulder on Friday. The MRIs were taken this week at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Kremchek said he was surprised how good Balfour's arm looked, given that he has been pitching for years after the initial surgery.
"It looked great and I was glad for him. I was pleasantly shocked," Kremchek said. "That's awesome, and then I heard [Orioles' doctors] failed him. I was like, 'Whoa.' Either I am missing something or they are. Because I didn't bat an eye when I saw it."
Kremchek said he has reviewed worse MRIs from pitchers who have never had surgeries or arm symptoms — and he has passed them.
Duquette didn't completely close the door on Balfour, but the Orioles are expected to turn their sights to former Tampa Bay Rays closer Fernando Rodney, according to an industry source.
The Orioles had several discussions with Rodney before reaching terms with Balfour, but nothing progressed.
Rodney, 36, saved 85 games in 95 opportunities in the past two seasons for the Rays.
Chris Perez, a 28-year-old right-hander who saved 25 games with the Cleveland Indians in 2013, is also available. The Orioles had also been monitoring the returns of former Boston Red Sox pitchers Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey from arm injuries.
While Duquette said he remains confident that quality closer options remain in a dwindling free-agent market, he also indicated that the Orioles might ultimately turn to an internal option. Set-up man Tommy Hunter would likely top the list of internal candidates.
"I want to point out that most of these closers like Jim Johnson two years ago, they come to the team as reliable bullpen pitchers and then the manager, as the player shows he can handle more responsibility, gives them more responsibility at the end of the game," Duquette said. "That's how these things work. If we have reliable pitchers in our bullpen, I'm sure someone can close out the game. Two years ago we were looking for a closer and we had it from the people we had. Who knows? We may do the same thing this year in 2014.
"I think having good pitching on our staff is really the priority," Duquette said. "We're going to continue to look and sign players who will be helpful to team."