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Rosenthal: Balfour an intriguing late-inning option for Nationals

Image: Grant Balfour of the Oakland Athletics (© Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports)
The fiery Grant Balfour saved a career-high 38 games in 2013.
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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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A new team is in the mix for free-agent reliever Grant Balfour, and it’s none other than a potential World Series contender.

The Washington Nationals saved approximately $3.5 million Friday by signing shortstop Ian Desmond and right-hander Jordan Zimmermann to back-loaded, two-year extensions.

The team’s motivation, according to major league sources, was to create financial flexibility. The Nationals have two remaining arbitration cases. They have made no secret that they want to add another bat off the bench. But they also are interested in Balfour, sources said.

While the Nationals already have three relievers with closing experience - Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen - the addition of Balfour could make sense for a variety of reasons.

The Nats almost certainly do not want Soriano to pitch enough games to vest his $14 million option for 2015. They likely prefer Clippard as a setup man and, according to sources, would like to trade Storen, who will earn $3.45 million this season.

Clippard is one of the Nationals’ two remaining arbitration cases, along with right-hander Doug Fister. Clippard is asking $6.35 million and the team is offering $4.45 million. Fister is asking $8.5 million and the team is offering $5.75 million.

Those are significant differences, and the Nationals might simply redirect their newfound savings on Desmond and Zimmermann toward the resolution of both cases. But perhaps they will attempt to restructure their bullpen, too.

Balfour, 36, could give the Nationals a late-inning alternative to Soriano in ’14 and a full-time alternative in ’15 as well. The Nats, sources said, are not showing interest in the other top closer on the market, Fernando Rodney.

Soriano, 34, is entering the second year of a two-year, $28 million contract. However, by finishing 62 games, he could guarantee his option for ’15. He finished 58 last season, reviving in September after struggling in July and August.

Clippard, who turns 29 on Feb. 14, earned 32 saves in 2012 but wore down in the final month. Storen, 26, blew a two-run lead to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the Division Series that season, prompting the Nationals to sign Soriano.

Combine Storen’s salary with the money that the Nationals saved in the first year of the Desmond and Zimmermann extensions, and the increased flexibility in ‘14 could amount to approximately $8 million - close to the number it would take to land Balfour and another bench player.

PRICEY ROSTERS

See which teams shelled out the highest MLB payrolls in 2013.

Desmond and Zimmermann will earn a combined $14 million in the first year of their respective deals and $27.5 million in the second. MLBTradeRumors.com initially projected their combined total for ‘14 to be $17.4 million.

Balfour, meanwhile, reached a two-year, $15 million agreement with the Baltimore Orioles in December, only to see the deal collapse when the team’s doctors were not satisfied with the results of his physical.

The Orioles informed Balfour that they were concerned about his shoulder, sources said. But two other team physicians who had a history with Balfour - the Rays’ Koko Eaton and Reds’ Timothy Kremcheck - said they saw no problems with Balfour’s arm. Eaton performed a contrast MRI on Balfour’s shoulder and Kremchek reviewed the pitcher's MRI with the Orioles.

Balfour, 36, missed the 2005 and ’06 seasons after undergoing surgeries on his elbow and shoulder, but has not been on the disabled list for arm trouble since.

Over the past two seasons, he converted 62 of 67 opportunities with a 2.56 ERA for the Oakland Athletics and was named to the 2013 American League All-Star team. He also pitched three scoreless innings for the A’s against the Detroit Tigers in the 2013 Division Series.

Tagged: Orioles, Athletics, Nationals, Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Tyler Clippard, Jordan Zimmermann, Drew Storen, Ian Desmond

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