Don’t expect the Orioles to resolve their closer situation any time soon.
As the club tries to distance itself from the mess the situation with Grant Balfour created, the Orioles' external search still seems to be focused on free-agent right-hander Fernando Rodney. Interest in Rodney has reportedly picked up, both in general and from the Orioles, but it appears that the sides are far apart.
The possibility of the Orioles opening spring training with Tommy Hunter as the team's closer is becoming more real by the day. Once the team dealt 50-save closer Jim Johnson to Oakland, the club saw Hunter as a fallback option. But now he’s turning into much more of a possibility.
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“We have dependable relievers,” Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. “I’m sure we can find somebody to get the last couple outs.”
The free-agent closer market is getting thin. And a lot of closing candidates are signing with teams to take on non-closer roles.
Over the weekend, former Cleveland Indians closer Chris Perez agreed to a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he likely won’t get to close over Kenley Jansen.
While the Orioles weren’t very interested in Perez, earlier this month former St. Louis Cardinals closer Edward Mujica, who was a top Orioles target, opted to join a stacked bullpen in Boston to set up Red Sox closer Koji Uehara. Last week, Joaquin Benoit signed with the San Diego Padres to serve as a set-up man for closer Huston Street.
One of the things the Orioles can offer over some other teams is that they’re looking to hand the closer's role to somebody. Ideally, they'll bring a late-inning pitcher from outside the organization and hand him the ninth-inning role, without competition or controversy, so they can keep Hunter, Darren O’Day and new acquisition Ryan Webb in set-up roles.
There aren’t many closer jobs out there -- and there are even fewer among teams that are supposed to contend.
Other than the Orioles, only the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros have more pressing needs for closers right now. Even though other teams could still seek upgrades, the Orioles' closer job would seem to be among the most attractive to a free agent -- take away the stringent medical standards that were spotlighted last week with Balfour.
The New York Yankees, who currently have set-up man David Robertson in line to succeed Mariano Rivera, have reportedly shown interest in Balfour, as have the Tampa Bay Rays. But Tampa Bay’s payroll is already at a projected franchise record-high $74 million, so you’d think they’d have to move some parts -- namely reliever Heath Bell -- in order to make a move for Balfour.
Right now, it appears that the Orioles are content to allow the market to play out. Basically, they’re in wait-and-see mode. They’re waiting to see if Rodney’s price comes down and waiting to see what happens with Balfour.
But the number of available closers is dwindling, too. It’s unclear whether former Boston closers Joel Hanrahan or Andrew Bailey, both coming off arm injuries, would be available on Opening Day. And since they are coming off injury, what's to say they would pass a physical from the Orioles? That leaves the likes of ... gulp ... Kevin Gregg and Francisco Rodriguez, both former Orioles.
While the Orioles have inquired about Rodriguez, the market on the 32-year-old reliever doesn’t seem to have much juice. When the Orioles acquired Rodriguez last year for prospect Nick Delmonico, Duquette said that K-Rod would be able to help out in the seventh, eighth and, possibly, ninth innings. But Rodriguez wasn’t put in many pressure situations, and Orioles manager Buck Showalter even mentioned late in the year that Rodriguez’s time to the plate was an issue.
Meanwhile, let’s face it. The fallout from last week’s mess with Balfour isn’t going away.
When the Orioles stepped away from a two-year, $15-million deal with Balfour because of concerns with the 35-year-old closer’s right shoulder, they had to anticipate some backlash.
And they definitely got it.
The Orioles don’t delve into the free-agent market often. And the club’s front office maintains that the team will be focused on player development in sustaining the club’s success.
No matter whether you believe that a diagnosis varies from doctor to doctor, or that the Balfour situation was rooted from a more sinister plot, it isn’t going to be any easier for the Orioles to sign free agents moving forward.
The fact is, now that Balfour has left Baltimore dumbfounded -- and has built a case for his health -- other free agents will be wary of working with the Orioles.
So maybe it’s for the better that the Orioles shelve their closer search for now and see where it goes.