The highlight of the Orioles' offseason was supposed to take place Friday morning, when the club would emerge from a sleepy offseason and introduce new closer Grant Balfour during a news conference at the Warehouse.
But Balfour's two-year, $15 million deal with the Orioles is now in major jeopardy, after team doctors expressed concern with Balfour's right shoulder during his physical, according to industry sources.
The 11th-hour snag has forced not only the cancellation of Friday's press conference but also the Orioles' front office to consider its next move with Balfour, whom the club initially agreed to terms with on Tuesday.
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette had hoped the club's pursuit of a free-agent closer to replace Jim Johnson, who was traded to the Oakland Athletics on Dec. 2, would be officially complete by the end of the week. Manager Buck Showalter arrived in Baltimore on Thursday night to attend Friday's press conference.
Now, if the deal with Balfour falls through — a very real possibility, according to sources — they must reset their chase for a closer in a dwindling free-agent market.
The severity of any injury to Balfour's shoulder is unknown. But before Balfour, who converted 62 of 67 save opportunities for the Athletics over the past two seasons, emerged as a dependable late-inning arm, he missed two full seasons in 2005 and 2006 after reconstructive elbow and shoulder surgeries.
As a member of the Minnesota Twins, 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.
Balfour has not missed time because of his shoulder since. He's been on the major league disabled list just twice, having missed 32 games with an intercostal strain in 2010 and 13 games for an oblique strain the next season. Last offseason, Balfour had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, but returned to the mound within two weeks and was on Oakland's Opening Day roster.
But Balfour will turn 36 later this month, and the Orioles are known for their stringent physicals and exacting medical standards. Last offseason, the club re-worked a deal with pitcher Jair Jurrjens, changing it from a major league contract to a minor league one after having some concerns about his surgically repaired right knee.
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.
The most infamous was Sele, a right-hander who had won 18 games with the Texas Rangers in 1999 and agreed to a four-year deal with the Orioles worth $29 million in January 2000. A physical showed some significant wear in Sele's labrum, and the Orioles attempted to alter the deal.
Instead, Sele signed a two-year pact with the Seattle Mariners. He went 32-15 in those two years and pitched a total of eight seasons after the deal with the Orioles collapsed.
Now the Orioles face a similar crossroads with Balfour.
During last week's winter meetings, the Orioles focused on Balfour exclusively before the club made offers to other closing candidates. A third guaranteed year became a sticking point during the negotiations, holding up an agreement for days, but Balfour eventually settled for the Orioles' original two-year offer.
Meanwhile, another top closing target, John Axford, signed with the Cleveland Indians for $4.75 million over one year, and Joaquin Benoit signed a two-year, $15.5 million deal with the San Diego Padres.
Duquette had been confident that the club would be able to sign a quality closer because there were more free-agent candidates than teams with closing jobs.
But if the Orioles and Balfour part ways, atop a shrinking pool of available closers would be former Tampa Bay Rays closer Fernando Rodney and former Indians closer Chris Perez. The Orioles have also been monitoring former Boston Red Sox relievers Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, both of whom are coming off arm injuries.
After a relatively quiet offseason, the Orioles made two key moves in a 48-hour window, first agreeing to terms with Balfour and then trading Wednesday for outfielder David Lough — a candidate to fill the void in left field created by the departure of Nate McLouth — in a deal that sent infielder-designated hitter Danny Valencia to Kansas City.