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Closer swap could be key for O's, A's in 2014

After trading Johnson to Oakland, Baltimore reportedly adds free agent Balfour @RichardJustice

When the Athletics and Orioles had finished wheeling and dealing, they'd swapped closers. Grant Balfour went from Oakland to Baltimore, Jim Johnson from the O's to the A's. It's a teensy bit more complicated than that, and so we'll try to get that part of the story in the rearview mirror right here at the beginning.

When the second-guessing begins next summer, the fine print will be long since forgotten. By then, it'll be seen strictly as a pair of baseball decisions, and that's fair, too. Both teams have playoff aspirations, and that's largely how the swap ought to be seen. This isn't the first rodeo for either Athletics general manager Billy Beane or Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, so they know how things work.

What makes this exchange unique is that these are two of the best in the game at what they do. Both Johnson and Balfour have been All-Stars and helped their teams get to the postseason. Both were clubhouse leaders.

Let's begin with the trade that started it. When Johnson was traded from Baltimore to Oakland, he opened the door for the O's to eventually sign Balfour in free agency, the deal that completed the swap.

The Orioles dealt Johnson to the A's for second baseman Jemile Weeks and Minor League catcher David Freitas 16 days ago. It probably was a punch in the gut to O's manager Buck Showalter and his veteran players, guys like Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Nick Markakis.

Johnson was more than a teammate. He was a friend. He was one of the players who made the clubhouse special. To think Johnson could be replaced on the mound or in the clubhouse must have seemed silly.

Likewise, Balfour meant plenty to the A's. He'd finally established himself as a big leaguer during his three seasons in Oakland, and on a team known for its personality and grit, he was perhaps the loudest, happiest and most fiery of all the A's.

So here's how it happened and why it made sense for both teams. Beane traded for Johnson during a stretch when he made a series of whirlwind moves, signing free-agent left-hander Scott Kazmir and trading for Rangers outfielder Craig Gentry.

Johnson is arbitration-eligible this offseason and can be a free agent after the 2014 season, and he will likely make around $10 million in '14. Balfour made $4.5 million in 2013, but he was believed to be seeking a three-year contract in free agency.

Beane wasn't willing to make a three-year commitment to a player a couple of weeks away from celebrating his 36th birthday. Inside the industry, some believed that Beane wouldn't acquire another closer at all, that he'd allow two of his gifted late-inning guys -- Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle -- to compete for the job.

Rather, Beane went for more of a sure thing. The A's believe they're good enough to win a World Series title in 2014, and Johnson is more of a known quantity. Also, because Johnson could be a free agent after next season, Oakland can consider their its options again after 2014. Beane might have seen it as Johnson for one year and Balfour for two or three.

Now about the Orioles. When Johnson was traded, it was tough for many fans to swallow, even though he'd struggled at times in 2013. It was one thing to trade him, but was Weeks a fair return?

Two weeks later, the deal has more clarity. In reportedly reaching a two-year agreement with Balfour ($14 million, plus deferred payments of $500,000 each year) on Tuesday, Duquette saved about $4.5 million in 2014. He's expected to use that money to improve his rotation, and depending on what else happens, the O's could be positioned to again be competitive in the American League East.

Neither player comes without some baggage. Johnson had 51 and 50 saves the last two seasons, leading the AL both times. But he also led the Majors with nine blown saves in 2013, and Showalter took some heat for sticking with him. With Johnson about to get a big raise in arbitration and then possibly becoming a free agent in 12 months, Duquette went with a cheaper alternative.

Likewise, Balfour had such a tough stretch in September that his manager, Bob Melvin, had Doolittle close a couple of games. Balfour's ERA (2.59) was slightly better than Johnson's (2.94) in 2013, and so was his WHIP (1.197 versus 1.280).

In a perfect world, Beane might have preferred Balfour to Johnson, but he was more comfortable with the one-year commitment to Johnson. And Johnson is five years younger than Balfour.

So get your scorecards ready. Two general managers with distinguished resumes made the kind of deal that requires vision and guts. Good luck, fellas. See you in October. Both of you.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Grant Balfour, Jim Johnson