Orioles’ Buyer’s Remorse on Balfour Damaging to Both Parties

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I knew the Orioles decision last week to nix the two-year, $15 million deal they had reached with closer Grant Balfour after his physical with team doctors was controversial.

Balfour has been a fantastic relief pitcher of late. Last year the 36-year-old saved 38 games for the Athletics and posted a 2.59 ERA with a 10.3 K/9 and a 3.9 BB/9 ratio on his way to a first career All-Star selection. It wasn’t an aberration. The right hander hasn’t had an ERA higher than 2013’s 2.59 in his last for seasons.

With those numbers in mind, it seemed as though Balfour had agreed to an incredibly team-friendly deal with Baltimore. The Orioles were losing their own All-Star closer, Jim Johnson, who they traded earlier this offseason (to Oakland, ironically). Balfour would have filled a major need at a pretty agreeable, short-term value.

However, Orioles team doctors found something in Balfour’s shoulder that they didn’t like, convincing the team to back out of the deal despite the fact that two doctors with other clubs came forward publicly to challenge those findings.

Yes, I knew the Balfour situation was controversial. However, I had no idea that the Orioles had such a decorated history of this sort of thing.

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports has a piece up today explaining that these types of medical-related negotiation fiascos have been happening in Baltimore for around 15 years now.
He quotes Braves GM Frank Wren, who was fired as Orioles GM after one season, as saying the following:

“That’s how [Orioles owner Peter Angelos] plays general manager. He uses medical reasons to kill or change a deal if he doesn’t like it.”

Rosenthal then lists some of the alterations that have occurred during the last 20 years.

· In 1993 the Orioles backed out of negotiations with 1B Will Clark in 1993 due to medical concerns and instead signed 1B Rafael Palmeiro

· In 1998 the Orioles signed reliever Xavier Hernandez to a two-year, $2.5 million contract and then voided the deal after learning through a physical that Hernadez had a torn rotator cuff. The Orioles eventually paid a $1.75 settlement when Hernandez filed a grievance. Hernandez never pitched again.

· In 2000 the Orioles reached an agreement with pitcher Aaron Sele on a four-year, $29 million contract and then tried to alter his contract after his physical turned up issues in his labrum. Sele ended up signing a two-year contract with the Mariners, where he went 32-15 with a 4.05 ERA and pitched six more years in Seattle after that contract was up.

· In 2006 the Orioles agreed to a two-year, $12 million contract with outfielder Jeromy Burnitz but then lost the free agent over language about the physical that left too much room for the Orioles to either complete or reject the proposed contract. Burnitz ended up signing a one-year, $6.7 million contract with the Pirates.

· In 2013 the Orioles agreed to a one-year, $1.5 million contract with pitcher Jair Jurrjens. With incentives, the deal could have paid up to $4 million. However, after reviewing Jurrjens’ physical the Orioles altered the deal, and instead signed Jurrjens to just a minor league contract.

Balfour will undoubtedly land on his feet somewhere. Reports on MLBTradeRumors.com today indicate that four teams have shown interest in signing the Aussie reliever. Balfour insisted to Jim Duquette and Jim Bowden of SiriusXM that he is healthy and has at least one offer on the table already.

The real issue is whether this new team will be willing to offer him a deal equal to the one reneged on by the Orioles. I don’t think there is any question that Balfour’s, or any of the other players mentioned above, position in the marketplace was damaged by Baltimore’s actions, and there is still a possibility Balfour will file a grievance against the Orioles.

As Rosenthal astutely points out, the Orioles may not have been wrong in any of the above scenarios, but theirs is precisely the type of conduct that other agents and free agent players will take note of. In these types of cases, there is a fine line between using due diligence and exploiting the system to give yourself an unfair advantage at the negotiation table and to hit the undo button whenever having post-sale buyer’s remorse.

Certainly there are other free agents on Baltimore’s radar, especially now that the money formerly applicable to Balfour has been freed up. But the Balfour case will stir up this bit of ugly franchise history, and could be cause for agents to steer clients completely clear of Angelos and the Orioles.

About Matthew George

Matthew George graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2008 with a bachelor of science in journalism. He spent three years writing sports for the Kentucky Kernel, the university's daily paper, and served as assistant sports editor. After undergrad, Matthew attended Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University where he earned his juris doctorate. He is now admitted to practice law in Kentucky and Indiana.

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