So here’s the question to consider in light of Monday night’s trade of Jim Johnson: Are the Orioles taking a bigger risk by needing to find a new closer or would they have been rolling the dice even more by paying Johnson $10 million for a season?
That’s the figure being tossed about for what Johnson would have won from them in arbitration. After all, he is the only closer in major-league history to post consecutive 50-save seasons. But would he have made it three in a row with the Orioles in 2014? Would he have even come close?
Maybe Johnson will have another high-save season with Oakland next year, but the risk for the O’s would have been committing so much money — allocating their resources, as club vice president Dan Duquette put it — to a closer. Yes, there have been great relievers who put up season after season of reliable, sometimes even outstanding results. But the consistency of Mariano Rivera — nine seasons with at least 40 saves — is balanced by the example of Bobby Thigpen — a 57-save year followed by two seasons of immediate drop-off and a quick fade from the majors.
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For whatever reason — injury or somehow just “losing it” — a pitcher in general and a closer in particular can be a game of chance for a club. You never really know exactly when the bulb is going to burn out. The Orioles saw an example this year on their roster. Fans were left asking: Hey, didn’t you used to be Francisco Rodriguez? His K-Rod days lasted a while, maybe eight years if you’re charitable, certainly at least five. But the Rodriguez who pitched for Baltimore in 2013 had a 4.50 ERA and gave up 25 hits and five home runs in 22 innings.
Johnson’s nine blown saves in 2013 may have been enough of a warning sign. Among the 19 major-league closers who had at least 33 saves last season, only one had a lower success rate than Johnson’s 84.7 percent. Among that same group, only Johnson gave up more hits (72) than innings pitched (70 1/3).
So the Orioles have taken an educated guess with this move, deciding the “resources” would have been too much. Maybe they’ll look smart when Johnson starts blowing saves for the A’s and Tommy Hunter or Darren O’Day or whoever is shutting everyone down in Baltimore. Or maybe Johnson proves to be more Rivera than Thigpen. That’s the chance you take.