With the Baltimore Orioles trading away closer Jim Johnson, the American League leader in saves the past two seasons, the question is, who fills that role this coming season?
The Orioles could fill the hole within, with Tommy Hunter and Darren O'Day as possible candidates, or through free agency, with Grant Balfour as a possible target.
The other question is, why did the Orioles trade away a guy who recorded over 100 saves the past two seasons for a relatively modest return in infielder Jemile Weeks and a player to be named from the Oakland Athletics?
The answer to that question is much simpler -- money.
The Orioles decided to deal Johnson rather than go to arbitration with him this winter, a process that likely will land him a salary in excess of $10 million.
"It's really about the allocation of resources," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette told the Baltimore Sun. "And to have a competitive team, you have to have proper balance throughout your club. And this is our intent with the trade: to balance our roster and allocate our resources properly and have a competitive team in 2014."
Weeks, 26, might get an opportunity to play second base for Baltimore, but he ran out of chances in Oakland.
Once a highly touted prospect, Weeks fell off the radar the past two seasons. He hit .221 with no power and lowly .305 on-base percentage while playing 118 games for Oakland in 2012, stats that led to him spending almost all of 2013 back in the minors.
2013: 85-77, third place in AL East
TEAM MVP: 1B Chris Davis was voted the team MVP by the media, and he finished third in voting for American League MVP. Davis finished batting .286 with 53 homers and 138 RBIs. The breakout year coincided with his first full big league season at first base, where he erased any doubts with a superb year with the glove as well. His club record 53 homers fell short of the pace he set in the season's first half, but he gives the club a legitimate middle-of-the-order bat to build around.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: RHP Jim Johnson was an All-Star closer in 2012 and he put together 40-plus saves again in 2013. But it was the blown saves that really killed the Orioles. A year after putting together the best record in one-run games, the Orioles were atrocious in nail-biters this season -- in part because of Johnson's struggles. He finished 3-8 with a 2.86 ERA in 69.1 innings, blowing nine saves in 58 chances.
TOP PROSPECT: 2B Jonathan Schoop is the top position prospect in the system, though RHPs Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman are considered the premier chips in the organization. Gausman will factor into the 2014 plans, but Bundy will be recovering from elbow surgery. Schoop, meanwhile, put on a good show in the season's final week and could be used in a platoon at second base in 2014.
--OF Francisco Peguero, non-tendered by the Giants on Dec. 2, signed a one-year deal with the Orioles five days later. Peguero, 25, batted .207 with one homer, one RBI and two steals in 18 games for San Francisco in 2013.
--RHP Ryan Webb agreed to a two-year, $4.5 million contract with the Orioles. The deal is pending a physical. Webb, 27, had a 2.91 ERA in 80 1/3 innings for the Miami Marlins this year.
--OF Jason Pridie and RHP Eddie Gamboa were non-tendered by the Orioles on Dec. 2, making them free agents. Pridie, 30, went 2-for-10 in four games for Baltimore last season. Gamboa, 28, went a combined 6-11 with a 4.43 ERA in 25 starts in Double-A and Triple-A in 2013.
--C Johnny Monell, designated for assignment by the Giants on Nov. 27, was traded to the Orioles three days later in a cash deal. Monell, 27, went 1-for-8 in eight games with San Francisco as a September call-up. He spent the bulk of the season with Triple-A Fresno, hitting .275 with a .364 on-base percentage, a .494 slugging percentage, 20 homers and 64 RBIs.
--RHP Brad Brach was traded from the Padres to the Orioles on Nov. 25 in exchange for minor league RHP Devin Jones. Brach, 27, went 1-0 with a 3.19 ERA in 33 appearances for San Diego this year. He figures to compete for a spot in Baltimore's bullpen during spring training. Jones, 23, finished a combined 5-7 with a 5.64 ERA in 25 starts for Class A Frederick and Double-A Bowie.
--INF Cord Phelps was claimed off waivers by the Orioles from the Indians on Nov. 25. Phelps, 26, went 0-for-9 in four games with Cleveland this year. He was sent back to the minors, then finished the season on the major league disabled list due to right wrist inflammation.
--RHP Edgmer Escalona signed a one-year, major league deal with the Orioles in late November. Escalona, 27, went 1-4 with a 5.67 ERA in 37 relief appearances for Colorado this year. Over parts of four seasons with the Rockies, he went 1-5 with a 4.50 ERA in 78 games.
--LHP Kelvin De La Cruz signed a one-year major league contract with the Orioles, the team announced Nov. 18. "We like his size and he's got a couple of good pitches, he has a couple good weapons to strike hitters out," Baltimore executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said, according to MLB.com. "We think there's a couple things we can help him out with (adjustments-wise), and that he can compete."
De La Cruz, 25, is an eight-year minor league veteran with no major league experience. He spent 2013 in the Los Angeles Dodgers' farm system, going a combined 3-1 with seven saves and a 2.67 ERA in 50 appearances for Double-A Chattanooga and Triple-A Albuquerque.
--LHP Chris Jones had his contract purchased by the Orioles, who added him to their 40-man roster. Jones, 25, went 4-4 with two saves and a 2.85 ERA in a combined 36 games (two starts) for Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk this year. He was acquired in an April trade that sent RHP Luis Ayala to Atlanta.
--INF Alexi Casilla's $3 million club option was declined by the Orioles on Nov. 4, with the team choosing to pay a $200,000 buyout. Casilla, 29, hit .214/.268/.295 with one homer and 10 RBIs in 62 games for Baltimore this year.
--3B Manny Machado underwent left knee surgery Oct. 14, and the Orioles announced that his recovery time would be about six months. That would put Machado's return at mid-April, after the 2014 season is under way. The operation repaired a torn medial patellofemoral ligament. Dodgers orthopedist Neal ElAttrache performed the surgery at the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles.
--RHP Eric Beaulac, who finished the season on the Orioles' disabled list due to a torn labrum in his right hip, was activated Oct. 3 and outrighted to Triple-A Norfolk. Beaulac, 26, went a combined 2-0 with a 1.96 ERA in 12 appearances in Class A and Double-A this year.
--1B Chris Davis was named the Orioles' Most Valuable Player before the season's final game, the same afternoon the team gave away 25,000 bobbleheads in his likeness. Davis led the Majors with 53 home runs and 138 RBIs. "It's been a really fun year for me personally, a little disappointing at the end, obviously, not making the postseason," Davis said. "Just to be on a winning team, I think a lot of guys have had successful years not on winning teams and it's been bittersweet. For me to be on a team that was really in it until the last couple weeks and have the year I've had has been a blessing." Davis, who has two years, remaining on his contract, is hopeful he can get a long-term deal with Baltimore. "I can't think of a better place to hit for the rest of my career," Davis said in a press conference before the finale. "I have had so many good memories here in two years." Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said: "He's set a real high bar that I hope everybody here realizes. I'll tell you, I love what he's done defensively and how he's handled all the attention."
--CF Adam Jones played through minor ailments for much of the season, but ended the year with some major milestones. Jones finished with 33 home runs -- a second straight year with 30-plus -- and 108 RBIs -- marking his first season in triple-digits. He sat out the season finale to rest a sore wrist and shoulder, but would have played had the game carried any significance.
--RF Nick Markakis said his inability to adjust -- and not injuries -- resulted in his struggles in 2013. The veteran, who turned 30 in September, finished with career-lows in homers (10) and doubles (23) in 631 at-bats. An offseason of rest to distance him from last year's wrist surgery could work wonders for Markakis.
--2B Brian Roberts ended his last season under contract with a flourish. The veteran -- a free agent after wrapping an injury-plagued four-year contract -- homered three times in a five-game stretch in the season's final week, ending with eight homers and a .249 average. Seemingly a foregone conclusion he'd depart after this season, Roberts' health and play could earn him a one-year contract offer.
--RHP Jim Johnson finished the year with 50 saves -- giving him 101 for the past two seasons. He had nine blown saves this year, finishing with a 3-8 record and a 2.94 ERA. His back-to-back 50-save seasons were a first for the Orioles.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've had so many good memories in two years. You know I'd love to extend that for a number of years." -- 1B Chris Davis.
Baltimore is in an enviable position of sorts -- with an exciting, young nucleus intact and relatively healthy. There are no big contracts the club must commit to this offseason, and the front office has some flexibility to seek out solutions for its needs.
The downfall for executive vice president Dan Duquette and company: the club's needs and the free agent market don't necessarily match up. Baltimore needs a front-of-the-rotation starter and a big bat -- preferably one who can play left field and/or first base. The club has some depth in both position players and pitchers, but is in need of one big bat and one big arm.
BIGGEST NEEDS: While the Orioles core will return, there are some glaring needs. Offensive struggles in the second half illustrated a hole at designated hitter. The club could use impending free agencies in left field and second base as opportunities to upgrade the offensive production at both spots. The Orioles could look for a front-line starter -- though they may have to go the trade route -- and some bullpen help.
ARRIVALS: RHP Brad Brach (trade with Padres), C Johnny Monell (trade with Giants), 2B Jemile Weeks (trade with A's), RHP Ryan Webb (signed as free agent from Marlins)
DEPARTURE: RHP Jim Johnson (traded to A's)
FREE AGENTS: 2B Brian Roberts, LF Nate McLouth, OF/1B Michael Morse, RHP Francisco Rodriguez, C Chris Snyder, RHP Scott Feldman, RHP Jason Hammel, 2B Alexi Casilla, LHP Tsuyoshi Wada, OF Jason Pridie
Roberts and McLouth could return if the Orioles can get them at the right price. Morse is unlikely to return after going 3-for-29 with no extra base hits. Rodriguez and Snyder could return, though the club may look to upgrade both the bullpen and the backup catcher spot. Snyder could be a candidate for a minor league contract.
ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: 1B Chris Davis, C Matt Wieters, RHP Bud Norris, RHP Tommy Hunter, LHP Brian Matusz, LHP Troy Patton, 3B/DH Danny Valencia, OF Nolan Reimold, OF/1B Steve Pearce, OF Chris Dickerson
Johnson will be tendered a contract despite his struggles in 2013. Davis and Wieters are no-brainers, and likely both in for a raise. The club would like to explore long-term deals with both. Norris, Hunter, Matusz and Patton likely will be tendered contracts. Valencia had a break-out August and September, and likely played his way into the plans for 2014. Reimold may be let go after three frustrating, injury-plagued seasons.
IN LIMBO: 2B Alexi Casilla, RHP Bud Norris
The Orioles could go with a platoon at second base in 2014, or they could re-sign Brian Roberts. Either way, Casilla's role is unknown after a solid campaign as a reserve. INFs Jonathan Schoop and Ryan Flaherty may have roles at second base. Meanwhile, Norris looked strong in the rotation August and September, but could also be leaned upon in relief if the Orioles' rotation gets a boost via free agency or a trade.
--3B Manny Machado (left knee surgery in October 2013) had a torn ligament repaired. He faces a six-month rehab, which would put his return at mid-April.
--1B Chris Davis (sprained left wrist) left the season finale after a collision at first base. He said the ailment was minor.
--OF Michael Morse (sore left wrist) was shut down during the season's final week. He may require surgery.
--LF Nolan Reimold (spinal surgery in July 2013) underwent an operation to help correct the unsuccessful spinal fusion he underwent in June 2012. He is likely not going to be at full strength for spring training 2014, and he may not be with the Orioles at that point, either.
--2B Alexi Casilla (concussion symptoms) missed the season's final six days after a collision in which he also injured his right thumb.
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