Rotation upgrade, closer head extensive Meetings list
Johnson trade first big move; club also seeks DH, left fielder and second baseman
BALTIMORE -- The Orioles made their first big move of the winter Monday, trading All-Star closer Jim Johnson to the A's, which, in addition to giving them salary relief, netted them Jemile Weeks and a player to be named.
The two biggest questions now, heading into next week's Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., are who closes and where does the organization go from here?
Baltimore already had a lot of holes to fill -- in the rotation, at designated hitter, in left field and at second base -- and the closer spot is now among them, with the expectation being that the O's will try to sign a closer on the free-agent market at a cheaper price than what Johnson would have cost.
The salary-arbitration projections indicated Johnson would have made more than $10 million, and the deal frees up some room to allow the organization to be more aggressive on the free-agent market. It's possible the Orioles will look into trading for a closer, but there are several available options on the market -- including Grant Balfour, Edward Mujica, Chris Perez and Fernando Rodney -- who they could try to sign for less than what Johnson will earn.
In addition to Johnson, shortstop J.J. Hardy and catcher Matt Wieters have emerged in various trade rumors already this winter, although both would be considerably harder to move with no clear-cut replacement and both not likely to command much in return.
Upgrading on the starting pitching front remains a challenge on the free-agent market. The organization isn't overly enthused about what's out there, and the Orioles have made it clear they are building with the goal of having an organization that can sustain success without making pricey long-term contract offers. Still, early winter deals like Jason Vargas, Scott Kazmir and Phil Hughes have set the bar high, and if the O's are going to upgrade their rotation (their top priority) externally, they are going to have to be willing to open the purse strings a little.
Beyond starting pitching, the Orioles were one of the worst teams in baseball at the designated-hitter spot, and the loss of veterans Brian Roberts and Nate McLouth to free agency leaves them empty at second base and left field, respectively, although Weeks is a candidate at second. As far as DH goes, the club would obviously like to get some more power and production out of that spot and has been linked to a few higher-profile names, most notably Carlos Beltran and Nelson Cruz, and high on-base percentage guys like Shin-Soo Choo.
The bullpen, unable to replicate the success of 2012, has already seen some massive changes with the Johnson trade, and Baltimore has added Brad Brach -- in a trade with San Diego -- and signed Kelvin De La Cruz and Edgmer Escalona to add depth and compete for spots this spring.
Ultimately, the Johnson deal will be judged on how the organization is able to "reallocate resources," the phrase executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette used to describe what facilitated the move. If they can get another closer and put money toward a big bat, it could go a long way in helping shape the 2014 club. The O's will head to Disney World with a long list, and they could create some serious buzz at the Meetings as they try to build a sustainable and successful team.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.