Jim Duquette on the Orioles' bullpen troubles
BALTIMORE – Perhaps the most interesting subplot for the remainder of this season is what happens with Jim Johnson.
Johnson has suddenly become a lightning rod in Baltimore with fans denouncing him, claiming that his nine blown saves are the difference between the Orioles being in first place and where they are now.
For now, Johnson is still the Orioles closer. Even if manager Buck Showalter wanted to use Francisco Rodriguez in Johnson’s place, K-Rod suffered a strained right groin in Friday’s game and could be unavailable for a few days.
Rodriguez is unlikely to be back next season. But, what about Johnson?
All was well with Johnson until recently. While he led, and still leads the majors with 39 saves, he leads in blown ones, too. Johnson is still a season away from free agency and potential big money.
After a year when he led the majors with 51 saves and blew only three, none after July, Johnson is earning $6.5 million.
Next year, he could earn perhaps $8 million in arbitration.
That seems rich for a team that has a number of players due for big raises and ones that they’d like to keep. Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Chris Tillman and Matt Wieters will get big jumps, and the Orioles will try to lock Wieters up for the long term in the off-season.
Even if Johnson straightens himself out in the last six weeks of the season, it doesn’t seem likely that the Orioles will offer him a long-term deal.
If he continues to falter, they’ll have to decide whether to keep him and pay him handsomely for his final year before free agency or try and trade him. If they try and move him, teams may not offer much for him knowing that it’s possible the Orioles won’t offer him a contract.
Non-tendering Jim Johnson? A few weeks ago, that would have been lunacy, but now, it’s not so far-fetched.
A year ago, the Orioles had a possible successor to Johnson, Pedro Strop. But, he finished last year erratically and pitched so poorly this year he was dealt to the Chicago Cubs last month.
Tommy Hunter could be an option, but it doesn’t look as if he can pitch multiple games in succession as Johnson has.
Darren O’Day probably doesn’t have closer stuff, and while he could fill the role, he’s more valuable as a set-up man.
Unlike other positions, closers can come from anywhere. Johnson was a minor league starter, and it took him until late in his fourth major league season to become the fulltime closer. The Orioles' run of success began around the time Showalter made Johnson the closer in Aug. 2011.
The Orioles could look to free agency for a relatively cheap closer, convert a starter to the bullpen or take one of their current relievers and try him in the role.
Whether or not the Orioles’ last six weeks of the regular season are successful, it will be fascinating to watch Jim Johnson pitch for his Orioles future.