Just a few days ago, it appeared all but certain that former Athletics closer Grant Balfour would join the Orioles on a two-year, $15 million contract to replace Jim Johnson at the back end of the bullpen. Then suddenly on Thursday night, news began traveling around the Twittersphere that Balfour's deal was in jeopardy due to concerns about Balfour's physical. The Orioles were concerned about Balfour's right shoulder, the one he had surgery on eight years ago. Now, the deal is off; Balfour will not be an Oriole. Baltimore's decision is a torpedo to Balfour's free agent aspirations, and he cannot happy.
More importantly, Balfour contests that his shoulder is completely fine. While at first, this gripe could seem like a natural angry reaction without much support beyond Balfour's toughness or whatever, it becomes more legitimate when not one, but two other teams' physicians say that Balfour's shoulder is fine. Both Rays physician Koco Eaton and Reds physician Timothy Kremchek inspected MRIs of Balfour's shoulder and saw no reason for the Orioles to back out of the deal:
"The MRI that I did on him today looked exactly the same as the MRI I did three years ago. It did not look normal compared to a person who does not play baseball for a living. But for someone who plays baseball for a living, it looked normal. There are abnormalities on the MRI as there are on every single baseball player’s. But three years ago, there was no issue, and he had pretty good performance when he was with Oakland. I would say with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that his shoulder would not be a problem going forward any more than it was a problem over the past three years, and there was no problem over the past three years."
"For a guy in his 30s who has pitched six or seven years since his rotator-cuff repair, his MRI on his shoulder looks remarkably good. I have not seen the (actual) MRI. But when I saw the report, I was like, ‘Whoa, it looks pretty good.’ And with his elbow, the same thing."
Balfour is considering filing a grievance against the Orioles, though due to HIPAA regulations, they will not be permitted to reveal what they saw without Balfour's consent. Time will tell what will happen with that, but if the words of Eaton and Kremchek are inspiration for Balfour's health, perhaps the Yankees should move in on the free agent closer.
I was against forking over money to sign Balfour since I think he's a little overrated and also not as good as Yankees setup man David Robertson, who should get the closer's role regardless. (Robertson has made strides with his control in the past two years while Balfour's walk rate rose to 3.9 BB/9 last year.) However, as mentioned in my article recommending the Yankees' pursuit of Joaquin Benoit, the Yankees need reliable relievers in their bullpen. As of now, it's just Robertson, Shawn Kelley, LOOGY Matt Thornton, and sophomore Preston Claiborne. Kelley's probably the most complete reliever aside from Robertson in the 'pen right now, and although he's a strikeout magician, his WHIP was an unpleasant 1.313 last year. Since they play in the least number of innings and relievers tend to be fungible, bullpens are not the highest priority, but the Yankees could certainly stand to make improvements before pitchers and catchers report in 55 days (not that I'm counting).
Balfour has been one of the game's top relievers over the past four seasons with the Rays and A's, pitching to a 2.47 ERA (63 ERA-), 3.25 FIP (82 FIP-), 1.052 WHIP, and 9.2 K/9 in 259 games and 254 2/3 innings. He'll soon be 36, but been remarkably healthy and durable, a fact that made the Orioles' hesitance all the more surprising. I actually thought that the two-year, $15 million deal for Balfour was actually quite fine. It wasn't a long commitment, and he'd only have been getting a couple million more per year than Robertson is estimated to make in arbitration this year.
Balfour is unlikely to cost that same price now, so to get him at an even better deal makes a helluva lot of sense for the Yankees. He would not cost another draft pick, he's an elite reliever who can strike out anyone, and he's not immediately solved by opposite-handed hitters. Balfour still shouldn't be closing over Robertson, but if he did, it wouldn't be the end of the world. Hell, it would potentially give Robertson more flexibility to work in a "fireman" type role rather than being restricted to one inning. (He'd probably be working mostly the eighth given Joe Girardi's management style, but the possibility still exists.) Regardless of who gets what role, Balfour in the Yankees' bullpen would give it a big boost. I'm sure Balfour also would not hate the idea of sticking it to the Orioles with a division rival, either.
The Yankees went down under and found success before with Graeme Lloyd after similarly weird injury concerns in 1996. Time to do it again 17 years later.