Two months ago, Dan Duquette assured reporters that Jim Johnson would be back with the Orioles in 2014. There had been some speculation that the Orioles, wary of Johnson’s struggles in 2013, wouldn’t offer him a contract.
Not so, Duquette said. The Orioles will have to pony up to pay Johnson, who’s saved 101 games the past two seasons. Estimates are between $8 and $11 million. That’s a lot of money for a reliever. Johnson earned $6.5 million in 2013.
Some have floated the proposal that Johnson return to starting. If you don’t remember, Johnson came up as a starter.
In 2006, the Orioles were desperate for a starter and needed an extra one, and Johnson came up for a forgettable debut. He allowed eight runs on nine hits in a 13-11 loss to the Chicago White Sox and was returned to Bowie immediately afterward.
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He hasn’t started in the major leagues since.
Two winters ago, the Orioles toyed with making Johnson a starter, something that’s been long talked about. Former manager Dave Trembley even mentioned how bullpen coach Alan Dunn, who was later Kevin Gausman’s pitching coach at LSU wanted Johnson to start.
Johnson didn’t start in 2012. He had a back injury that delayed his spring training and the contemplation of putting him in the rotation never got past just thinking about it.
The other day, I wrote about Matt Wieters’ place in Orioles history. I submitted that he was probably the best catcher the team has had in their 60-year run in Baltimore.
It’s easy to say that Jim Palmer was the best pitcher, Cal Ripken and Brooks Robinson the best shortstop and third baseman, but other positions aren’t so obvious.
Just as Wieters has shown he was the best catcher in just under five years, Johnson is making a case for the best reliever in club history.
Already, Johnson is second in team history with 122 saves. He trails only Gregg Olson, who had 160. Johnson could pass Olson with a 39-save season.
Johnson recorded 21 saves from 2008-11. He was the closer for the last two months in 2009 after George Sherrill was traded away. Johnson admitted he wasn’t prepared for the role. In Aug. 2011, Buck Showalter gave him the job, and that’s when the team began its turnaround.
Olson was drafted as a reliever and almost immediately installed as closer. He won Rookie of the Year in 1989, and by Aug. 1993, had accumulated 160 saves. Olson was soon injured, and moved on.
He played for eight more teams, but except for two years where he served as Buck Showalter’s closer in Arizona, Olson’s days as a big-time saver were over when he left the Orioles.
Aside from Mariano Rivera, none of the top 13 active closers who pitched in 2013, accumulated saves for just one team. It’s a volatile position.
Besides Olson and Johnson, the others on the Orioles all-time top ten save list are: Tippy Martinez, Stu Miller, Jorge Julio, Randy Myers, Eddie Watt, Dick Hall, Tim Stoddard and Sherrill.
Other than Myers, who had 347 saves in his career, but spent just two years with the Orioles, it’s not a spectacular group. Lots of fans remember Martinez, who spent 11 seasons with the Orioles, but he only saved more than 20 games once. They don’t necessarily remember him as a closer, but for his three pickoffs in one inning 30 years ago.
Johnson probably doesn’t have a long term future with the Orioles. If he closes for them in 2014, it would be hard to see them signing him to a multiple-year contract. If he starts, that might be different, but it’s still hard not to seem him elsewhere a year from now.