Should Orioles think about a Jim Johnson trade?

Should Orioles think about a Jim Johnson trade?
November 15, 2013, 11:00 am
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(Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports)

After the barrage of trade rumors on Wednesday, FoxSports.com’s Ken Rosenthal slipped a suggestion in. How about the Orioles trading Jim Johnson?

As a young man, I couldn’t resist ice cream. I’ve gotten over that, but now sometimes I can’t resist trade talk.

Trading Johnson, unlike moving J.J. Hardy or Matt Wieters, wouldn’t cause major consternation in Birdland. When fans aren’t busy criticizing Wieters, they’re blaming 2013’s woes on Johnson.

If Johnson hadn’t blown nine save opportunities, surely the Orioles would have been in the postseason, they say. They did finish 6 ½ games behind Tampa Bay, so surely Johnson’s struggles did have some effect.

Of Johnson’s nine blown saves, the Orioles lost eight. He picked up the win in the ninth. Johnson lost eight games, three of them on blown saves. Not good.

But, Johnson still saved 50 games, and over the last two seasons has 101 saves, and has led the league both years.

The idea of not retaining Johnson was raised here back in August when he went through his roughest patch of the season. A few days before the end of the season, Dan Duquette defended Johnson and dismissed any idea the Orioles would non-tender their closer.

He said Johnson was a premier closer and they wanted to bring him back in 2014.

Johnson earned $6.5 million in 2013 and in his final year of arbitration, he’s in line for a hefty raise, perhaps to $8 million and maybe beyond. MLB Trade Rumors suggest Johnson is in line for a $10.8 million salary this year.

If that’s the case, the Orioles should try and trade him. While Hardy and Wieters aren’t currently replaceable, Johnson at $10.8 million could be.

I don’t blame last season’s falloff on him. The starting pitching wasn’t as sharp, either.

If they chose to, the Orioles could probably find an acceptable replacement for Johnson from the host of free agent pitchers on the market (Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Chris Perez, Fernando Rodney.) Joe Nathan is out of their price range, and the team would have to alter its no full beard policy to accommodate Brian Wilson, which apparently the Yankees won’t.

They could also try Tommy Hunter as the closer though he clearly wasn’t strong enough last season for an everyday assignment. New pitching coach Dave Wallace might have an idea or two of his own.

Johnson came up as a starter, and maybe Wallace sees someone in-house in the minors or on the free agent market that he’d like to try as a closer. Wallace helped develop Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta’s terrific young closer.

If the Orioles try and trade Johnson, they would probably not get equal value in return. It would reek of a salary dump, but would be better than a non-tender, which Duquette insisted he won’t do.

With Chris Davis as well as Hardy and Wieters needing extensions, a long-term deal for Johnson isn’t happening. The Orioles could simply keep Johnson as their closer for 2014 at what they might view as an above market price and find a new one for 2015.

Closers who aren’t Mariano Rivera don’t generally have a long shelf life. Even Nathan, who now is the active saves leader with 341 will likely be with his fourth team next year. He turns 39 in a week.

Coincidentally, Francisco Rodriguez, who’s unlikely to re-sign with the Orioles, is now second behind Nathan with 304 saves. K-Rod didn’t get an opportunity to add to that total in his two months with the Orioles.

Unlike his predecessor Andy MacPhail, Duquette doesn’t worry about going to arbitration. He could play hardball with Johnson, and if he’s awarded anything close to the $10.8 million projection, which seems awfully high, Duquette will be livid. An $8 million price tag for a closer is high enough.

Johnson, the team’s player representative, is pragmatic about the business side of his game, and will be realistic about possibly going to arbitration. The Orioles may not even want to offer Johnson anything close to $8 million, which I think is a more realistic salary.

In an offseason already full of dramatics with lots more to come, we can add the Johnson backstory.

NOTE: On Thursday, Orioles minor league director Brian Graham was named winner of the Chief Bender Award for his work in player development.