Will A's regret choosing Johnson over Balfour?

Will A's regret choosing Johnson over Balfour?
December 17, 2013, 5:15 pm
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Last season, Grant Balfour posted a better ERA and WHIP, higher strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate and fewer blown saves than Jim Johnson. (AP)

Grant Balfour reportedly has agreed to a two-year $15 million contract with Baltimore, providing the Orioles with a closer and A’s fans with a juicy debate.

[RELATED: Report: Balfour agrees to two-year deal with Orioles]

Would Oakland have been better off re-signing Balfour rather than trading two weeks ago for Jim Johnson, the man Balfour will replace in Baltimore?

From a soap opera standpoint, this scenario couldn’t have played out more perfectly. Two closers, both with sparkling credentials, swapping uniforms for contending American League teams. The ninth inning will be chock full of drama when these teams play regardless of who’s got the lead.

And it makes for a lively discussion because of the affordable price tag the O’s paid to land Balfour, a free agent who was an All-Star last season and served as the A’s primary closer the past two years. The common thought was Balfour would be in line for a two-year deal in the $20 million range. But it was a crowded market for closers this winter, and the fiery Australian didn’t enjoy the leverage he might have in other years.

The A’s, meanwhile, seemed poised to let Balfour walk and look for a cheaper ninth-inning option. Instead they sent second baseman Jemile Weeks and catcher David Freitas to Baltimore for Johnson, who stands to make between $10 and $11 million this season through arbitration compared to the $7.5 million Balfour will get.

How do their stats compare? Johnson, 30, led the majors in saves over the past two seasons with 101, compared to 62 for Balfour. But last season, Balfour posted a better ERA (2.59 to Johnson’s 2.94), a better WHIP ratio (1.197 to 1.280), a higher strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate (10.3 to 7.2) and fewer blown saves (three compared to nine).

But the A’s didn’t make their decision based on past accomplishments. They made it based on who is likely to best get the job done moving forward.

You’ve got to believe the A’s reservations about re-signing Balfour were based not so much on dollars, but the risk of committing multiple years to a closer who will be 36 when he reports to spring training. And there were national reports that Balfour initially was looking for a three-year contract.

Balfour was a terrific shot in the arm for the A’s the past three seasons, bringing a grit and toughness to the bullpen that was popular with the home fans, particularly his right-field crazies.

But he also relies heavily on his fastball, and velocity starts to fade when a guy hits his mid- to late-30s. Let’s not forget he went through a shaky period in early September that prompted manager Bob Melvin to turn to Sean Doolittle in some late-game situations.

It’s not that Johnson is bullet-proof -- his nine blown saves led the majors last season. But Johnson is roughly five years younger than Balfour, and he’s basically on a one-year trial with the A’s. He hits free agency after next season. If Johnson thrives as the closer, the A’s can consider locking him up over multiple seasons. If he struggles, he’ll likely be cut loose.

And with another year of experience, it’s possible that one of two young set-up men, Doolittle or Ryan Cook, will be ready to assume closer duties in 2015.

For now, just make sure to circle June 6. That’s the day of the first A’s-Orioles game next season, and it figures to be an entertaining ninth inning, no matter which closer is protecting a lead.