23 December 2013

Failed Physicals and Testing the Orioles' Success

An Unhappy Grant Balfour
Grant Balfour has to be pretty upset over his failed physical with the Baltimore Orioles.  He has to be upset because being refused by a team dampens the glow of your free agency as well as stalls you out while other teams like the Indians and Padres find solutions for their closer role.  Perhaps what might make you even more distraught is that the Orioles have been well served when their medical staff shakes their heads no.

Now, some of you out there may be taking the easy rationalization path and accuse Angelos of inserting himself into the process.  That line of thought includes shipping Johnson off due to his price tag and then him somehow being blindsided by the Balfour proposal even though it was a very long and public courting.  There are some mental gymnastics on display there, which is not to be unexpected.  Angelos' real and imagined interaction with the operation of the club has helped cultivate the part of us that is driven toward the conspiratorial.  It is difficult to reason with those who have given in to those urges because that belief system requires a near complete suspension of disbelief.  These individuals tend to believe in absolutes.  I will try to reason anyway.

What we have is a disagreement between two sets of medical staff using somewhat non-standardized assessment.  On each side sits well-respected doctors on their own right.  On the Orioles side is essentially the same staff that approved the physicals of Adam Jones and others.  On the other side lauded by Balfour's team are doctors responsible for his shoulder surgery and conducted his contract physical for his previous team, the Athletics.  As you can see there is interplay in non-standardized assessment tools as well as involvement of individuals who have invested interests.  That can result in honest disagreement and unconscious bias with only Balfour's side talking.  The Orioles side cannot speak due to medical privacy laws, which Balfour could waive (but I see no reason for him to consider that and the union would be rightfully upset).  Anyway, the Orioles' process has served them well in the past.  Perhaps I have forgotten a few names, but the three major free agents before Balfour who were at the threshold and not invited in were Xavier Hernandez in 1999, Aaron Sele in 2000, and Jeromy Burnitz in 2006.

Xavier Hernandez
With Alan Mills departing in free agency, the Orioles looked to fill their setup man void.  They agreed to terms with Xavier Hernandez on a two year deal for 2.5 MM that also included an option.  The previous year was spent in the Rangers pen putting up a 3.57 ERA (135 ERA+) that looked awfully dependent on luck due to a remarkably low BABIP.  Anyway, the physical came out poorly and the deal was pulled back with Hernandez filing a grievance.  Houston wound up signing him for 1 year at $750,000.  He never made it out of Spring Training.  However, the team did not completely make out as Frank Wren's front office made a mistake which enabled Hernandez to take a settlement for 1.75 MM.  Additionally, they had the poor judgement of signing Heathcliff Slocumb to replace Hernandez.  Future signings would now include a rather meticulous protocol for ensuring deals.  Current Braves GM Frank Wren was the GM for Baltimore at the time.  In interviews since, he has attributed the Hernandez signing as the impetus for Angelos acting on signings and trades with physicals being an excuse to nix deals he did not like.  One could say that that sounds like sour grapes.

Aaron Sele
After the 1999 season, the Orioles were looking better their rotation with the absence of Juan Guzman.  Sele would team up with Mussina to form a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation.  In 1999, Sele was 5th in Cy Young voting as a rather strong strikeout pitcher who managed 18 wins with a decent (at that time) 4.79 ERA (106 ERA+).  He was not as astounding as the wins made him out to be, but he was certainly solid for the Rangers.  Sele and the Orioles agreed on a 4 year, 29 MM contract.  His physical turned up some issues with his shoulder and the team reduced the deal from four to two years with the Baltimore medical staff saying that Sele had 400 innings left in the arm before his shoulder went out.  Sele walked.  He wound up signing that two year deal for 14.5 MM, but with the Mariners.  There his strikeout rates cratered, but a strong Seattle defense and SafeCo helped him maintain a very successful stint in the Northwest.  He turned that performance into a 3 year, 24 MM deal with the Angels where he proceeded to develop shoulder problems and found himself on the DL with a rotator cuff injury 550 innings after he walked away from Baltimore.

Jeromy Burnitz
Burnitz agreed in principal to a 2 year, 12 MM deal with the Orioles in 2006.  The 37 year old still showed some power, but was a mess in the field and had seen a difficult 2005 with the Chicago Cubs.  The Orioles presented him the terms for the agreement to pass and Burnitz' agent was concerned about the Orioles' terms related to the physical..  He wound up evacuating the deal and securing a 1 year, 6.7MM deal with a mutual option.  Burnitz proved to be horrific for the Pirates, suffering from leg problems all season long.  After his miserable season in Pittsburgh, the team declined his option.  Shortly after that decision, he retired.

Moving Forward
As you can see, there have been only a few contentions over the years.  Even last off season saw a problem with Jair Jurrjens and resulted with the team and him agreeing on a minor league deal.  What is remarkable is how the decision to not offer a MLB deal to the player or to provide a stringent protocol for finalizing the deal has succeeded in the case studies above.  This does not bode well for Balfour, but, of course, there are always exceptions.  We shall see.  There have been some rumblings between the Orioles and Balfour's representation.  Regardless of the emotions expressed, the team likes Balfour, but wishes to be better protected.  Balfour will likely shop himself elsewhere.  If unsatisfied and willing to swallow some pride as well as assuming the Orioles are patient, the two sides may still come to an agreement.

Other names in play that have been kicked around are Tommy Hunter, Fernando Rodney, and Jonathan Papelbon.  However, my bet is that none of them will be the closer.  It will be someone else or, a slight chance, Balfour.


Jon Shepherd said...


crosscheck12 said...

The problem is the O's want to be contenders but never will be till they take some risks. You can't grow all your pitching in house and you will pay market value + in free agency.

Jon Shepherd said...

Orioles were contenders in 2012. There usually are a couple teams that grow their own pitching. So, there are multiple ways to do it.

It certainly is easier to pay to play.

Mike K. said...

Looking like Nostradamus in the rearview mirror...