Why Were the Orioles Forced to Trade Jim Johnson for Jemile Weeks?
Unlike the Fister trade, this Johnson for Weeks deal is a balanced one with the Orioles clearing salary and acquiring a potential starting second baseman, while Athletics acquired a new closer to replace the departed Grant Balfour. Johnson is slated to make roughly $10 million through arbitration this winter, and that much for a closer is simply a luxury that the Orioles cannot afford. In this analysis, I will explain the baseball side first followed by the more significant financial aspect.
In his two seasons as the Orioles closer, Johnson led the league in saves both seasons but also led the league in blown saves this past year. This essentially tells us nothing more than the fact that Johnson had a lot of save opportunities. Johnson isn't a traditional closer in the sense of throwing 100 MPH and striking out a batter per inning, instead he relies on ground balls and not giving up free bases.
As all Orioles fans will tell you, something was different about Johnson last season, and it showed in his numbers. His strikeout rate was up, but so was his walk rate, home run rate, ERA, BABIP, LD%, and H/9. Johnson is projected to regress even further in 2014 by posting a 3.41 ERA and a 2.52 K/BB ratio, his lowest mark since 2009.
This doesn't mean that Johnson will be a poor closer for the Athletics, but it does mean that he is not worth 10 million dollars. Using the generally accepted equation that one WAR equals five million dollars, if Johnson performs exactly as projected, he'll be paid four times as much as he is worth. Even if the Athletics believe that Johnson will revert to his elite 2012 status, he will still be paid almost twice as much as he is worth.
In return for Johnson, the Orioles receive second baseman Jemile Weeks. Weeks had a promising debut for the Athletics in 2011, but has since fallen out of favor in Oakland. He spent most of the 2013 season at Triple-A Sacramento where he posted a .271/.376/.369 line with a 13.0% BB rate and a 16.1% K rate.
Weeks has a chance for a fresh start in Baltimore where he is the internal favorite to be the everyday second baseman for the Birds. The departure of Brian Roberts left a hole as second and Weeks could be a cheap way to fill that hole.
While this deal favors Oakland from a baseball perspective, the trade is balanced in the finances. With most of their core players earning raises through arbitration or in contracts, and with holes to fill at second base, left field, and in the rotation, the Orioles needed to clear salary.
Johnson was one of the main reasons for Baltimore’s financial crunch, as $10 million for a mid-range closer is simply poor value for a club with a tight budget. Furthermore, it's reasonable to suggest that if Johnson was a free agent the Orioles would not agree to sign him to a one year, $10 million deal. Internal replacements for Johnson include submariner Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, and current starter Bud Norris, while external candidates that the Orioles have been linked to include John Axford and Edward Mujica.
This trade is the type of trade that the Athletics make very frequently - an aging, expensive closer who is out of their price range for a cheap upgrade at a different position. However, this time the Athletics are on the other side of the deal. Unless owner Lew Wolff recently won the California lottery, it is unclear where the Athletics are getting the money to pay for both Scott Kazmir (2 years, 22 million), and Jim Johnson. Trading Brett Anderson, his injury history, and an 8 million dollar contract might be a good place to start. Or perhaps the Athletics will go a step further and deal Yoenis Cespedes and his 10.5 million dollar contract while his value is highest.
My final thought on this trade is that it illustrates a flaw in the arbitration process. Jim Johnson’s salary skyrocketed through the arbitration process because of his high save totals, which are a direct result of his save opportunities. Considering that Johnson also blew nine saves in addition to converting 50, is the raise justified?
Arbitration is typically designed to pay players relative to their contributions, but a lower rate than market value. For example, Chris Davis, who made 3.3 million dollars last year through arbitration, is also slated to make roughly $10 million next season. Granted, this is only Davis’s second time through arbitration while it is Johnson’s third, but the system is flawed when players with such different values are making the same amount.
If Johnson converted all 59 save opportunities this season, then a $10 million contract could be in order, but rewarding a closer for staying healthy and being given a lot of opportunities seems to be the mark of a poorly designed system. Nevertheless, this is the system in place and as a result of this system the Orioles were all but forced to trade Johnson.