Hot Stove League Smoke Signals

What message are the Orioles sending to their players and fans by dumping Jim Johnson to avoid paying him a $10M salary in 2014?  Certainly the players received from the Oakland Athletics in return for the All Star closer who led the majors in saves over the last 2 years do not project to be significant contributors.  The Orioles basically bet to come on a second baseman who was a high level draft choice and showed initial promise but disappointed last year.  (Don’t we already have mediocre options at second base?)  They also will receive a “player to be named later” which never translates to starting potential.  This move can only be viewed as a salary dump signifying that the owner Peter Angelos has a budget ceiling that the GM must keep under as he attempts to make moves to improve the  ballclub.  Our payroll has been averaging in the middle of the pack and I guess that is where Angelos would like to remain.  Granted, maybe Jim Johnson’s value was not at $10M, but he was an important piece of the overall puzzle.

In the NFL, fans can understand the ramifications of a salary cap.  Super Bowl winners like the Baltimore Ravens must expect to find their developing stars siphoned off by other teams that have more room available under the cap.  But the Orioles are under no such league restriction.  That is why the large market teams like the Yankees and Red Sox can continue to elevate salaries to astronomical levels as they bid against one another for the top level proven talent.  I would not expect Angelos to jump into the stratosphere of long term, huge contracts such as the 7 year $153M deal the Yankees just inked with Jacoby Ellsbury.  (In fact I prefer our deal with our center fielder Adam Jones for about $60M less.)  But the Oakland Athletics do not have the reputation of overspending and they found it within their means to anchor the critical closer role with Jim Johnson.

Most analysts advocate a “wait and see” approach based on where the Orioles will eventually use that $10M.  But nothing requires them to even make such an investment in additional players.  They have been shopping catcher Matt Wieters because they don’t expect to be able to afford his free agency price as a Scott Boras client.  They also face the pressure of meeting the salary demands of Chris Davis after his monster season.  It will take significant dollars just to retain some of the existing talent on the team.  Most nation al writers doubt that the Orioles will be able to keep both players  So how are the Orioles going to improve?  Is the ownership truly committed to winning the division and competing for a championship?

Yes, Jim Johnson had a couple of rough stretches in 2013 – blowing a total of 9 games which is extremely high.  I would contend that he needs a little more rest than we gave him.  Also when he falls into a funk where his pitches lack the downward movement that makes him effective, we should have him take a break and work the problem out on the sidelines or in non-critical situations rather than blindly throwing him out there every game in the ninth.  He has proven that he can find his groove and be productive over long stretches of games.  We just need to manage him more efficiently.  Nothing dictates that he must take the mound for every closing opportunity.  I am not advocating a “closer by committee” approach, but there are reasons for breaks in certain situations.  What is the plan for filling this slot going forward?

Certainly free agents want to come to teams that are committed to winning and have good prospects to succeed.  At the end of the day, the Oakland Athletics just improved and the Orioles opened up a significant hole in their ballclub.  There is plenty of time to make adjustments, but the smoke signals from the stove league would indicate that the Orioles are not on the path to excellence but rather are driven by remaining within some owner imposed salary cap limitation that will impact our competitive position.  It is easy for me to spend the owner’s money … but it seems that he has been putting out signals that once we neared the top of the hill, he would then open up his wallet to get us the couple of additional needed players.  Hopefully, by the end of the Hot Stove season, our prospects for 2014 will have warmed up!