Former Orioles closer Jim Johnson shakes hands with manager… (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore…)
When this offseason started, the Orioles appeared to be a couple of key players away from moving to the next level and heading into 2014 with a realistic chance of playing deep into next October.
Well, make it three.
Now, with Jim Johnson headed to Oakland in a curious salary dump, Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter need to acquire or develop a frontline closer for that to be a realistic scenario, which only makes sense if they know something that you don't.
We'll all have to wait and see how this plays out, since Duquette has delivered on his promise to make the Orioles a winning team, but the noise coming out of the Warehouse about "allocating resources" has the hollow ring of small-market philosophy that doesn't jibe with all those glowing reports of increased attendance and television ratings.
The Orioles could make that case when the fans stopped coming and the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network was still in its initial growth phase, but local and national revenues have — by all accounts — ticked up considerably over the past couple of years. So why have the Orioles spent the last month stocking the 40-man roster with everybody else's second-tier minor league players?
To be fair, there is some logic to avoiding a salary arbitration case that probably would have made Johnson a $10 million player. He saved at least 50 games for the second straight season, but his inflated blown-save total was one of the major reasons the Orioles came up 6 1/2 games short of the postseason.
The thing that makes this interesting is that the budget-conscious A's were the team willing to assume that risk and that the Orioles were willing to accept underachieving middle infielder Jemile Weeks and a minor league player to be named later for baseball's most prolific save guy the past two seasons.
Here's the question for the day: When does a trade make sense that makes a strong part of your team weaker without making a weak part of your team stronger?
The most obvious answer is, when you're more interested in saving money than in beating the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, but it's too early to make that assumption. Duquette still has a couple of months to illustrate the method behind this madness.
The Orioles have some other big fish to figure out, so if trimming Johnson off the payroll and (apparently) not re-signing Brian Roberts leads to a lengthy extension for Matt Wieters in the not-to-distant future, then it certainly makes financial sense. If it leads to the signing of a quality free-agent pitcher or a solid on-base threat, then it definitely makes strategic sense.
Short of that, it's puzzling that Duquette has to cut that kind of corner at a time when the Orioles need to upgrade their starting rotation and Johnson was one of the few veteran stars who might have fit into a bigger deal.
It's always difficult to figure out just what's going on inside the Orioles front office. The team's business divisions seemed to be humming along nicely when the club fired executive vice president of business operations Doug Duennes without explanation in late July. That led to predictable speculation about increased ownership participation in the day-to-day operation of the franchise, something that — based on past history — would not figure to evoke confidence from the fan base.
The Orioles will say that they are a middle-market team that has to succeed on a middle-market budget, which would be hard to dispute if they did not receive such a large portion of the MASN revenues and if other teams in similar economic territory — the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers — weren't willing to spend much more freely to be World Series contenders.
The Cardinals, who play in a market very similar to Baltimore, spent $25 million more on players last year than the Orioles. The Tigers have spent about $100 million more than the Orioles over the past two seasons.
Apparently, you get what you pay for.
The Orioles do face some daunting contract situations over the next few years, so they need to recognize that their window for maximizing the performance of the top players on their roster may already be starting to close.
Maybe that's why they traded Jim Johnson for a song and some payroll flexibility. Maybe we'll find out next week that this was all part of a master plan to bolster the rotation or get Wieters locked up for the long-term.
Or maybe it's the same old song and dance from a franchise that has seen the mountaintop and just doesn't have the will to climb the last few feet.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog, and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.