If this were a one-time thing, an isolated difference of medical opinions, the Orioles’ decision to run from free-agent closer Grant Balfour would be easy to dismiss.
Alas, it is not a one-time thing, but a pattern dating back 15 years. And for the Orioles, a team that already is at a crossroads, the Balfour fiasco could not have come at a worse time.
The Orioles need to win soon, before their two years of club control expire on a pair of Scott Boras clients, catcher Matt Wieters and first baseman Chris Davis. In case you missed it, Boras’ combined $283 million deals for free-agent outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo only reinforce why the agent prefers his clients to hit the open market.
So here are the Orioles, needing to make a push after falling from 93 wins in 2012 to 85 in ’13. Yet, all they have done so far is trade closer Jim Johnson and lose right-hander Scott Feldman and outfielder Nate McLouth to free agency while signing reliever Ryan Webb and acquiring outfielder David Lough.
Balfour was to replace Johnson, just as Lough will replace McLouth. But Balfour, who agreed to a relatively club-friendly, two-year, $15 million contract, did not meet the approval of the Orioles’ doctors. Or owner Peter Angelos. Or some unidentified Jedi master who can detect flaws in MRIs that no one else can decipher.
Two doctors with other clubs, both of whom have a history with Balfour, publicly challenged the Orioles’ findings. Orioles general manager Dan Duquette countered by saying that medical opinions vary from doctor to doctor, processes vary from team to team.
Well, tell that to Balfour, whose position in the marketplace is now damaged. Tell that to other free agents, who surely will take note of the Orioles’ conduct.
"This will factor into every competent agent’s thought process going forward," said an agent who asked not to be identified, and is not involved with Balfour.
Perhaps closer Fernando Rodney and outfielder Nelson Cruz will join the Orioles, anyway; money talks, and the O’s are now under pressure to make moves. Which could be problematic for a team that hasn’t signed a free agent for more than $12 million since 2007.
The O’s are not unwilling to spend – since 2009, they’ve awarded extensions to right fielder Nick Markakis, second baseman Brian Roberts, shortstop J.J. Hardy and center fielder Adam Jones ranging from $22.5 million to $85.5 million.
The O’s also are not unwilling to acquire players from outside their organization – Jones arrived in a trade, as did Davis, Hardy and others, while left-hander Wei-Yin Chen joined the club as a free agent from Japan.
Major league free agency, though, is usually not the Orioles’ thing. And if you’re Rodney, Cruz or any other free agent the O’s are considering, the dispute over Balfour’s physical should give you pause – the same way the Marlins give players pause when they refuse to grant no-trade clauses.
The Marlins will trade any player at any time, no matter what they say publicly or tell the player privately. The Orioles will quash deals by citing problems in a player’s physical, and sometimes the problems are not really problems at all.
Which is not to say the O’s are always wrong.
Angelos landed a better, more durable player when he backed off Will Clark due to medical concerns in 1993 and signed Rafael Palmeiro. Angelos’ hypersensitivity to injuries only grew after the O’s signed reliever Xavier Hernandez to a two-year, $2.5 million contract in ‘98, then learned from Hernandez’s physical that the pitcher had a torn rotator cuff.
Angelos voided the deal; Hernandez filed a grievance, negotiated a $1.75 million settlement and never pitched again. After that, baseball advised teams to perform physicals on players before announcing their signings. Which is how the term, “pending a physical,” entered the baseball lexicon.
The attention to detail makes sense, considering all the money that is at stake. Except, as the Balfour example shows, the Orioles under Angelos occasionally get carried away.
“That’s how Peter plays general manager,” said Braves GM Frank Wren, who signed Hernandez as Orioles GM and was fired after one season, in a 2006 interview with the New York Times. “He uses medical reasons to kill or change a deal if he doesn’t like it.”
Consider what happened in Jan. 2000, when the O’s reached agreement with right-hander Aaron Sele on a four-year, $29 million contract. Sele’s physical turned up issues in his labrum. The Orioles tried to alter his contract. Sele responded by signing a two-year deal with the Mariners.
Then-Mariners GM Pat Gillick – who previously had battled with Angelos while working for the Orioles – chortled that Sele was “like a star falling out of the sky.” Sele got the last laugh, too, going 32-15 with a 4.05 ERA in his two years with the M’s and pitching six more years after that, though he did undergo shoulder surgery in late 2002.
Since then, the Orioles have lost or altered deals with outfielder Jeromy Burnitz in 2006 and right-hander Jair Jurrjens in ’12 due to medical-related issues. They also got nothing out of Japanese left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada, who underwent Tommy John surgery and never pitched in the majors after signing a two-year, $8.15 million contract in Dec. 2011.
Angelos likely seethed over the money wasted on Wada. Perhaps he asked his physicians to apply greater scrutiny to Balfour, who turns 36 on Dec. 30. But after the matter went public, the Baltimore Sun reported that the Orioles’ concern was with Balfour’s right shoulder, information that likely came from the club. Never mind that Balfour is coming off two excellent seasons with the Athletics, and hasn’t been on the disabled list with arm trouble since undergoing elbow and shoulder surgeries in 2005.
The Red Sox, by contrast, operated with much greater confidentiality last offseason after learning from a physical that first baseman Mike Napoli was suffering from avascular necrosis in both hips. The two sides eventually reduced Napoli’s deal from three years, $39 million to one year, $5 million, but without public rancor.
Balfour figures to come out of this OK, though maybe not with $15 million guaranteed; he told MLB Network Radio on Sunday that four teams are interested in him and at least one has made an offer. He still may file a grievance in conjunction with the players union, sources say, charging that the Orioles operated in bad faith.
A mere difference in medical opinions? Perhaps. But this got public, and it got ugly, and it wasn’t a one-time thing.
The Orioles need to be signing free agents, not alienating them. Balfour, though, can draw inspiration from Sele. The team that just rejected him has been wrong before.