Baltimore Orioles

The Jim Johnson decision and the economic reality of closers

Jim Johnson is not in an Orioles uniform anymore because, as executive vice president Dan Duquette explains it, the club needed to better allocate its financial resources throughout the 25-man roster.

In other words, paying roughly one-tenth of the expected payroll for a closer – a position that can be exceptionally volatile – didn't make sense when the Orioles have other holes to fill and can use the money saved to do that.


Rational concept, but there's a Catch-22 here: The sense is the Orioles may have to go out of the organization for its next closer because there is a concern that they can't fill it internally.

If that's the case, then that $10 million is going to dry up fast.


What's the going rate for a closer?

Well, Joe Nathan, who saved 43 games in 46 opportunities for the Texas Rangers in 2013, officially signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday. According to reports, that's $9 million in 2014, $10 million in 2015 and a 2016 option worth $10 million that includes a $1 million buyout.

Nathan has arguably been one of baseball's most consistent closers over the years. But he is 39 (Johnson is 30) and has never had a 50-save season (Johnson has accomplished that in consecutive seasons).

This isn't about comparing Nathan, who has been a closer for nine seasons, to Johnson, who has been a full-time closer since 2012.  It's just to put into perspective that $10 million for a closer isn't outrageous if a team indeed wants someone in that role who has done it before.

If the Orioles are going to buy a free-agent closer from the bargain bin (not one highly sought after such as Grant Balfour), they are still going to have to pay a decent amount.

Consider, for instance, John Axford, who wasn't tendered a contract by the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday. Axford, 30, saved 106 games for the Milwaukee Brewers between 2010 and 2012. He blew nine saves in 2012 and then lost the closer's job altogether in 2013. Although he was good as a setup man, he everntually was traded from the Brewers to the Cardinals.

He made $5 million in 2013 and was due a raise in arbitration this year, so the Cardinals, who don't need him to close, cut him loose. He's looking for a job now – and the Orioles, among others, have interest – but you have to expect he won't be taking a pay cut if there is real competition for his services.

Another former closer that was available was Edward Mujica, who saved 37 of 41 games last year for the Cardinals, but lost his role at the end of the season. On Thursday, he signed a two-year deal reportedly worth $9.5 million. You can cross him off your list, but understand he'll make nearly $5 million a year and isn't tabbed to close. He got less than Joe Smith, a quality setup man who landed a three-year, $15.75 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels this offseason.


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So if the Orioles are intent on filling the closer spot from the free-agent pool, they likely will have to spend at least $5 million or more per season (remember, the Orioles gave free-agent closer Mike Gonzalez two-years and $12 million in 2010 and free-agent closer Kevin Gregg two years and $10 million in 2011).

That would leave about half (or less) of Johnson's projected salary in 2014 to fill a spot at left field or designated hitter or in the starting rotation.

And what will $5 million buy you these days?

Probably a little less than one year of Nate McLouth, who surely will get a two-year deal this offseason.

Five million is probably half a season of Scott Feldman. If the less durable Scott Kazmir landed a two-year, $22 million deal this year, Feldman should be able to get in the $10 million range per season on a multi-year deal.

Here's the reality: The Orioles need to show their fans that they are using the money saved on trading Johnson to improve their club in other areas. But that savings is going to have to be coupled with additional payroll – especially if they buy another closer – to sufficiently fill their other roster holes to the fans' satisfaction given the current free agent economy.


I'm not saying it can't be done – though buying another closer would make it difficult – but $10 million certainly doesn't buy what it once did in the baseball world.