With just hours remaining before the non-tender deadline Monday night, the Baltimore Orioles surprised the baseball world, trading closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics for Jemile Weeks and a player to be named later.
At fist glance, the deal seems to heavily favor the A's. Oakland gets a closer who saved 50 games in 2013 while posting a 2.94 ERA in just over 70 innings. The Orioles get a weak-hitting second baseman, who, after hitting a surprising .303/.340/.421 as a 24 year-old with Oakland in 2011, has struggled at the plate. Weeks, now 26 years old, played 130 games with Oakland's Triple-A affiliate, and just eight for Oakland this year. However, the Orioles get something far more valuable in the deal than a second baseman: financial flexibility.
After saving a combined 101 games between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Johnson was in for a big payday, projected by MLB Trade Rumors to make $10.8 million through arbitration. For a team that opened the season with a payroll just over $92 million, Johnson was a non-tender candidate, despite his recent track record. Now that he is gone, the Orioles have money to re-sign some of their free agents, including Nate McLouth, Scott Feldman, and Brian Roberts, all of whom may require two or three-year deals to retain. Though it certainly hurts to lose a closer as dominant as Johnson, manager Buck Showalter may already have a viable replacement in his bullpen with 26 year-old right-hander Tommy Hunter, who has seen the average velocity on his fastball rise from 90.48 miles per hour in April 2012 to 97.47 in his switch from starter to reliever, according to Brooks Baseball. Hunter had a 2.81 ERA in 68 appearances for the Orioles this season, recording four saves and finishing 20 games along the way. Hunter is expected to make roughly $3 million through arbitration.
The Orioles would have saved the money anyway had they released Johnson Monday night, but instead got the financial room they needed and a high-upside player in Jemile Weeks. Weeks has struggled the past two seasons in the majors, but posted a 1.7 fWAR in just 97 games in 2011, hinting that something more than a career utility player may be there. With a BABIP hovering around .250, there is a good chance Weeks bounces back, although to what degree remains to be seen.
For the Athletics, the trade fits a pressing need as well. Although trading for a high-priced pitcher like Johnson isn't typical of GM Billy Beane, it may actually save the team money, at least for the moment. The A's lost Grant Balfour to free agency, and it is unlikely that he returns in 2014. Now, the A's have a top closer without have to make a multi-year commitment in an offseason where prices for free agents are higher than ever. Should Johnson pitch well enough, Oakland may be able to give him a qualifying offer, getting draft pick compensation if he signs somewhere else after the 2014 season. The trade may even be a precursor to another move, which, after three trades for Oakland in under 48 hours, may not be out of the question.
The deal is not typical for Oakland, and seemingly-lopsided for Baltimore, yet it meets the needs of both organizations quite well.