A’s should come out ahead in `swap’ of closers

In the current baseball market place, it seems as if the Orioles got a relative bargain today when they locked in Grant Balfour, who’d been the A’s closer most of the last two seasons.

Baltimore’s opening for Balfour came after they’d traded their 50-saves closer of the last two seasons, Jim Johnson, to the A’s in the week leading up to the Winter Meetings.

So who comes out ahead here? The A’s have to pay Johnson more (he’s likely worth in the $10 million range in salary arbitration) for less – he’s a free agent after this year. The Orioles have Balfour locked in for two years for less – just $14 million.

    The late 49ers coach Bill Walsh used to like to say it’s better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late. And while replacing Balfour with Johnson isn’t a trade in a traditional sense, the A’s have swapped a closer who will be 36 in 2014 for one who will be 30 when the season starts.

Balfour may well have one more good year in his right arm. He blew just three saves last year, and in the playoffs added three scoreless innings, picking up a win and a save.

Johnson, on the other hand, had one miserable stretch early last year when he had four blown saves in a six-game May stretch and finished the season with nine blown saves. He also blew saves in three consecutive August games, although he would go on to get the win in one of those.

Still, I think Walsh would like the philosophy of getting younger that the A’s applied on this one. Johnson should be in the prime of his career. Balfour is closer to the end than the beginning, and there’s no telling when that reality will come to smack him.

If they both have good years, it’s a wash. If they both have bad years, ditto. The difference is that the A’s are grooming Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle and Dan Otero as possible closers, so Oakland will be ready in 2015 if a change is needed. Baltimore will have a second season of Balfour if things go south.

The closer’s situation has parallels. It’s somewhat the same with the change Oakland made two weeks ago in the starting rotation, where Scott Kazmir will take over for Bartolo Colon. Kazmir is a decade younger, but the situation is muddled by the fact that most of the last few seasons have seen Kazmir having to claw his way back into the big leagues after being let go by the Angels.

He seemed to get his game back the second half of last season with the Indians, but that’s not much of an arc of games on which to judge someone being asked to jump into the front end of the rotation of a contending club.

On the other hand, Colon was well-liked by his teammates and was coming off one of his best seasons, landing on the All-Star team en route to 18 wins.

History isn’t particularly kind to 41-year-old pitchers, which is what Colon will be for most of 2014. So the Kazmir-Colon tit-for-tat could easily go either way.

John Hickey

A longtime baseball writer three years into in his second go-round covering to the Oakland A's beat after a dozen years covering the Seattle Mariners. Covered the A's through the late 1980s and 1990s.

  • zobz1971

    “Bill Walsh used to like to say it’s better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late.”

    If Bill Walsh said that, he was quoting Branch Rickey from a few decades earlier.