As Johnson leaves for Oakland, Orioles look for new answer at closer inside, outside club
By EDUARDO A. ENCINA and The Baltimore Sun
Dec 03, 2013 | 9:44 PM
While the Orioles' trade of closer Jim Johnson late Monday night immediately offered more questions than answers about the club's direction this offseason, executive vice president Dan Duquette insisted Tuesday that the deal can't truly be evaluated for the next several weeks.
The Orioles dealt Johnson, who saved 101 games over the past two seasons, to the Oakland Athletics just before the midnight tender deadline in exchange for infielder Jemile Weeks and a minor league player to be named later. While the Orioles unloaded the projected $10 million-plus Johnson was likely to make in his final season of arbitration eligibility, what they got in return seemed underwhelming.
"The good news is that we're bringing back the core team from this past season and we're going to try to strengthen our pitching staff for 2014 so that we can still be a very competitive, contending team," Duquette said. "That's the message I'd like for people to understand. We're going to continue to staff our team. When you evaluate the transaction, this isn't just Jim Johnson in exchange for Jemile Weeks. … It's who we add with that money to go along with Jemile Weeks that will give an idea of what the return is."
Weeks won't be handed the starting second base job, so his arrival doesn't necessarily fill the team's hole at that position. Johnson's departure, meanwhile, creates a big one in the back end of the bullpen.
The Orioles likely will look to find a new closer externally, either through free agency or via a trade, according to an industry source.
There are internal candidates to replace Johnson, setup man Tommy Hunter the most likely among them, but at this point, the Orioles are viewing those as fallback options, especially since it is so early in the offseason.
Duquette said the move allows the Orioles to be more active in the free-agent market in the coming weeks.
"It does create some flexibility to staff other areas of our team," Duquette said. "That's what we're going to do in the next couple weeks."
Now, however, the Orioles must add closer to an offseason wish list that already includes a starting pitcher, left fielder and left-handed designated hitter.
Currently, the Orioles are scouring the free-agent market for cost-effective closer candidates. They have interest in former St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Edward Mujica, whose value is expected to reach $4 million to $6 million annually. They are also monitoring former Boston Red Sox closer Joel Hanrahan, who missed all but nine games last season because of a elbow injury. They have also discussed former closer John Axford, who was nontendered by the Cardinals on Monday.
Spending less money on a closer would free up money to upgrade the rotation, perhaps enough to re-sign Scott Feldman or add former Cincinnati Reds right-hander Bronson Arroyo. Duquette said the Johnson trade also allows the Orioles to expand their wish list of free agents, but whether that range stretches to top-end players like right fielder Shin-Soo Choo (Reds), center fielder Carlos Beltran (Cardinals), right fielder Nelson Cruz (Texas Rangers) and first baseman/designated hitter Kendrys Morales (Seattle Mariners) remains to be seen. All likely would require multiyear commitments.
Beltran, for example, is one of the team's top free agent targets, according to an industry source, but the 36-year-old could command a three-year deal.
"I want to assure our fans that we are going to reinvest the money that would have gone to that job to hire more players for the 2014 team," Duquette said. "We could just pick up the phone and redeploy that money somewhere else. We're going to continue to shape our team and sign players. We can use the money to sign another pitcher, to sign an outfielder, to sign a DH."
The Orioles' willingness to move Johnson became apparent in recent days, but few teams were willing to deal for a closer making eight figures. Offers for the former All-Star closer were largely unimpressive, according to a source.
Still, the Orioles were hesitant to trade Johnson, 30. They considered a move to the rotation, but given his history of back problems, decided against it. The Orioles dealt him instead.
"Jimmy is a good human being," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said Tuesday. "We lost a good pitcher, but we lost a better person. He's a lifetime Oriole. He bled black and orange."
In 2011, Showalter decided to make Johnson the team's closer, moving him from the setup role to replace the struggling Kevin Gregg.
But the Orioles appear hesitant to promote an existing late-inning arm to the closer role this time. While Hunter would be such a candidate, there are concerns about whether he is built to preserve close leads in the ninth inning in the American League East.
Hunter has a 39 percent ground-ball rate, compared to Johnson's 57.7 percent, which made him an ideal closer. Hunter also allowed a .294 batting average to left-handed hitters and struggled pitching on a third consecutive day. Fellow setup man Darren O'Day is not a closing option, but some in the organization believe starter Bud Norris has the stuff to convert to the ninth inning.
For now, though, the Orioles will look outside the organization for Johnson's successor.