In an Orioles game that I attended near the end of last season, the 9th inning rolled around with the Orioles holding a slim lead, and predictably, Buck Showalter brought in Jim Johnson. Now I’ve always liked Jim Johnson, he embodies a myriad of Orioles successes, the development of a pitching prospect drafted in the 5th round, the choice to not give up on him after 2009/2010 campaigns marred by injury and mediocrity, and ultimately the decision to transition a bullpen workhorse in 2011 to the unchallenged closer in 2012. However, this string of successes and the fact that Johnson was voted the 7th best pitcher and 14th best player in the American League in 2012 seemed to be swiftly forgotten in the wake of his midseason swoon as he was greeted by scattered jeering and boos and noticeably absent applause. The guys sitting behind me called him a bum and suggested we trade him for a bag of peanuts.
While that’s definitely a trade I’d hang up the phone on, that brings up a very good question: should the Orioles hold on to Johnson this offseason? To determine the answer, we’ll look at the two most relevant seasons to determine how he’ll perform in the closer role in 2014: 2012 and 2013.
While this is a fairly simple chart lacking in any advanced sabermetric analysis, this by itself is pretty telling in how Johnson will perform in 2014. In 2012, Johnson was a dominant closer posting the second highest SV % (of players with 30 or more saves) in baseball behind only Fernando Rodney (96%). Let us first be clear, the only statistic that truly matters for a closer is SV%, all other stats serve only to explain a closer’s SV%, for example ERA or K/9. With this in mind, number of saves doesn’t matter, Francisco Rodriguez’s incredible record of 62 saves in 2008 hid a slightly above average season (89.9 SV%) that was blessed by the baseball gods with a staggering 69 chances. Understanding this, we can all acknowledge that Johnson was an incredibly valuable player in 2012. However, 2013 was a different story as Johnson seemed to completely lose his feel for his stuff at times posting a pedestrian 84.8 SV%, 16 out of 19 among closers with 30 or more saves with only Tampa Bay’s Fernando Rodney (always one-upping Johnson) and Chicago’s Addison Reed performing more poorly.
Predicting a relief pitcher’s future stats is usually a pretty tricky proposition, but considering Johnson’s return to form at the end of the year, it would likely be reasonable to assume that while he will not post such sterling numbers as in 2012, he has fixed his issues from 2013 and is primed to post a save percentage around 90%, about a point ahead of the league average. So, while Johnson is not an elite closer, he is certainly an above average closer who would contribute to, not detract from, the Orioles 2014 playoff hopes.
The next piece of the puzzle is determining if an above average closer is worth the salary that Johnson will likely earn in 2014. First, the Orioles are going to tender Johnson a contract, as Duquette made this very clear at the end of the season. According to MLB Trade Rumor’s arbitration model, Johnson will likely command a contract of about 10.8 million (arbitration pays saves, not SV%). Let’s take a look at some recent contracts given to proven closers, though keep in mind that the Orioles would probably never hand out contracts of this magnitude to a one inning pitcher.
|Jonathon Papelbon (Philadelphia Phillies)||4yrs 50 million (2012)|
|Jose Valverde (Detroit Tigers)||2yrs 14 million (2010)|
|Rafael Soriano (Washington Nationals)||2yrs 28 million (2013)|
|Joe Nathan (Texas Rangers)||2yrs 14 million (2012)|
|Huston Street (Colorado Rockies)||5yrs 36 million (2010)|
|Heath Bell (Miami Marlins)||3yrs 27 million (2012)|
These contracts range between 7-14 million average annual values, putting Johnson’s projected 10.8 million a bit above average for a proven free agent closer. However, Johnson has had one strong season in the closer role to date so he probably could not yet be classified as proven. Also, Johnson is not yet a free agent, and since everyone knows that above average (and even average) free agent pitching is vastly overpaid, it isn’t difficult to see that the Orioles aren’t going to want to pay a potentially slightly above average 1 inning pitcher (70 innings) almost 11 million dollars. To put that in perspective, we are paying 13 million for 1450 innings of Adam Jones in 2014. So while Johnson on the free agent market is probably worth something in the ballpark of his projected 2014 salary per year, the Orioles would never pay it to him in any other context.
So, taking the reasonable assumption that the Orioles probably don’t want to pay Johnson what he’ll earn in 2014, it stands to reason that they would look to and should look to trade him. So what could the Orioles get for Jim Johnson? Let’s take a look at some recent trades of closers and see what kind of return they brought to the dealing team.
|Astros trade Jose Veras||Tigers trade Danry Vasquez, David Paulino|
|Orioles trade George Sherrill||Dodgers trade Josh Bell, Steve Johnson|
|Astros trade Mark Melancon||Red Sox trade Kyle Weiland, Jed Lowrie|
I think after looking at all of these trades, we can reasonably say that if the Orioles played their cards right, Johnson would bring a bigger return though the Mark Melancon trade is probably the most comparable of the three. Even if the Veras and Sherrill trades aren’t totally comparable to a Jim Johnson trade, both the Astros and the Orioles would probably do those trades again in a heartbeat. Now, looking at the Melancon trade, the Astros received an, at the time, average shortstop, and a pretty good pitching prospect for a guy who did not have Johnson’s resume. Thus, it would be reasonable to think that the Orioles could get something like a solid mid-rotation pitcher and a low level prospect. Let’s look at who the Orioles could match up with, though keep in mind these trades are very hypothetical.
Orioles trade Jim Johnson, Tigers trade Rick Porcello & Cory Knebel
This is a trade that makes a lot of sense; the Tigers would get a solid solution for their closer role who they could potentially extend, and the orioles would get a currently mid-back rotation starter and the Tiger’s #15 prospect who is seen as a potential future closer. Perhaps, the Tigers would want more in this trade, so maybe the inclusion of a low-level Orioles prospect could be in the cards.
Orioles trade Jim Johnson, Dodgers trade Stephen Fife, Ross Stripling, and Yimi Garcia
This is another trade that would make a good deal of sense for the Orioles, as Fife is an extreme groundball pitcher who would benefit greatly from the Orioles’ defense, and Stripling and Garcia (#10 and #12 Dodgers prospects) would add some quality pitching talent to the Orioles minor league system. While the Dodgers don’t need a closer, Johnson would be a strong set-up man, albeit expensive, but everyone knows money doesn’t matter for the Dodgers.
Orioles trade Jim Johnson, Indians trade Corey Kluber & Kyle Crockett
This trade also makes sense in some ways; the Indians need a closer after releasing Chris Perez, and the Orioles could use the mid rotation ground-ball arm of Corey Kluber, and the depth of relief prospect Kyle Crockett to beef up their minor league system. However, the Indians probably don’t want Johnson’s salary any more than the Orioles, plus Cody Allen is a strong in-house candidate to fill the closer vacancy.
Finally, assuming the Orioles were to trade Johnson, who would fill the closer vacancy? The Orioles could give someone like Tommy Hunter or Darren O’Day a shot in this role, although this would probably not be advisable because of Hunter’s splits and O’Day’s value in a more fluid role, they could sign a free agent closer like Grant Balfour (probably 2yr 18 million), Jesse Crain (probably 1yr 4 million), Edward Mucija (around 3yr 20million), or Joaquin Benoit (2yr 16 million), or get creative and hand the job to someone like Bud Norris or a re-signed Jason Hammel. Out of all of these options, I think the smartest thing to do would be to sign Crain, make Norris a reliever (he would likely look something like Tommy Hunter with better strikeout capabilities), and let them duke it out in spring training. This is not a perfect scenario, but has a reasonable chance to provide similar value to what Johnson would provide, plus the saved money and the value of the acquired players.
So, to answer the primary question this piece poses, the Orioles should strongly consider trading Jim Johnson. However, there is one big catch to this idea, as we may have over-looked a final piece of the puzzle. While the Orioles appear to have moved on from Johnson as a starter, there is a chance they’ve taken a step back and realized his potential to make a C.J Wilson-esque transition from above average reliever to above average starter. This is likely one of the last points in Johnson’s career where he could reasonably make the transition (age), so why not roll the dice and see if all of his starter’s tools (big and strong frame, advanced 4 pitch mix, high groundball rate) would play as one might expect them to?
So, in summary, there are three main options for what the Orioles will do with Johnson: keep him as the closer, trade him, or start him. The first option is likely the safest as Johnson would likely improve to a pitcher between his 2012 brilliance and 2013 mediocrity. The second option has some risk as the Orioles would need to replace Johnson, however they would save money, help their system, and help their rotation. The final option is the riskiest, as closer-starter experiments have been known to de-rail careers (see Daniel Bard & Joba Chamberlain), yet has the highest pay-off as Johnson might have a chance to be a #2 or #3 starter. Whatever happens, pray we don’t trade him for a bag of peanuts.