|Grant Balfour (photo via Keith Allison)|
Balfour, who turns 36 on December 30, is a late-inning option the O's have been seeking since they traded away Jim Johnson a couple weeks ago. Balfour is technically a "proven closer" (72 career saves), so he is essentially guaranteed to assume the closer's role and will only lose it if he completely bombs. In 473 major league innings, he's posted a 3.27 ERA with a K/9 of 9.78 and a BB/9 of 3.94. So he'll get strikeouts, but he'll frustrate fans with walks as well.
Unlike recent acquisition Ryan Webb, Balfour is not a groundball pitcher (35.2 GB%), which helps to explain his low career .264 BABIP (groundballs are more likely to fall in for hits; home runs don't count). But groundballs can't leave the ballpark, and Balfour has a career HR/FB rate of about 8%. In his last three seasons (all with Oakland), that number jumped up, came back down, and jumped back up:
Those 11% rates, except for a 26-inning stint with the Twins in 2003 (14.3%), are the highest he's posted in his career. The Orioles have to be hoping that number is closer to 5% (or at least 8%) in 2014 and 2015, but he'll now be pitching in Camden Yards, a more home-run-friendly ballpark.
Balfour joins a nice stable of bullpen arms including some combination of Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz, Troy Patton, Zach Britton, T.J. McFarland, Josh Stinson, and Webb.
So where does Balfour's contract stack up with other 2014 free agent relievers? Let's take a look:
The above table is not a complete or perfect list. It doesn't include ages or how long each pitcher has played or display in-depth stats. But it's a good place to start.
The O's didn't give Balfour three years, which is certainly a positive. Again, Balfour is good, but he also turns 36 soon. Multiyear deals for relievers can be dangerous enough without even factoring in age.
Another positive: Balfour is not a specialist. In his career, he has retired lefties (.272 wOBA) and righties (.281 wOBA) almost equally well. A few of the names listed above are right- and left-handed specialists, and Balfour is more valuable than that. The Joe Smith contract might be OK, but the Boone Logan deal looks pretty awful. That's also a lot of money for J.P. Howell and Javier Lopez. So $15 million is a chunk of change for almost any reliever for two years, but that signing looks pretty good compared to some of the mediocre ones.
Still, the John Axford signing looks pretty good, and maybe that's the direction the Orioles should have gone in instead. He may end up being just as good as Balfour, plus he signed for a reasonably priced one-year deal. Regardless, though, the O's at least marginally improved their bullpen at a relatively fair price, and the additions of Balfour along with Webb look solid. The Orioles should not be done making moves, but they could have done a lot worse than picking up Webb and now Balfour.