It’s not like that anymore. They’ve had two winning seasons in a row, made the playoffs in 2012, and are much better organized than they were. Owner Peter Angelos is still savaged in the media for a multitude of reasons, but their minor league system is relatively well-stocked; they have competent front office management with Dan Duquette; and a superior field manager in Buck Showalter. That they’ve been torched for a lack of moves this winter lends credence to the idea that they must really have seen something they didn’t like on Balfour’s medicals because: A) the fans wanted them to make a move – any move; and B) comparatively, it wasn’t a huge sum of money they were spending to sign Balfour. They could’ve avoided all of this and run the risk of Balfour getting hurt by shrugging and signing off on the contract anyway no matter what the medical reports showed.
Duquette, a good baseball man who’d built the oft-reminisced-about Expos of 1994 and had a large hand in putting together the 2004 and 2007 World Series champion Red Sox, was out of baseball working on the Israeli Baseball League and other activities until he got another shot with the Orioles. Duquette’s stint in cold storage was in part due to his wooden personality, but it can’t be denied that he’s a smart and qualified baseball man who knows how to run an organization and is willing to take the hits when necessary as he did with Clemens.
Insurance is also a factor. It’s getting harder for teams to take out massive insurance policies on players so they don’t have to pay off the contract in the event of a career-ending injury. You won’t see players who have red flags on their medical reports and other issues such as weight problems getting huge contracts without the safety net of insurance to make it worth the gamble.
What will be more prevalent is what happened with Mike Napoli and the Red Sox last winter and what’s happening with Balfour now. Napoli’s medical reports showed a degenerative hip condition that spurred the Red Sox to pull their three-year, $39 million offer – agreed to with Napoli – off the table. Napoli was in a worse position than Balfour is and the Red Sox actually behaved worse than the Orioles have. It was leaked that Napoli had this hip issue so the other teams that were interested would know about it beforehand. The offers he received were not likely to be much larger than what the Red Sox eventually signed Napoli for with a $5 million base salary and $8 million in performance bonuses. He was trapped into either accepting the Red Sox offer or going back into the market with this glowing marker on both hips saying he was damaged goods. For Napoli and the Red Sox, it all worked out as the player stayed healthy, had a fine year and helped the club win the World Series. He was rewarded with a two-year, $32 million contract to stay and will wind up getting more money than the original $39 million he had agreed to. But that doesn’t make what happened right or fair.
I wouldn’t expect the happy ending to be the new normal.
After his retirement due to hip injuries of his own, the same Orioles received $27 million in insurance to cover Albert Belle’s contract. Insurance covered 75 percent of Mo Vaughn’s massive contract when an arthritic knee kept him from playing for the Mets. Interestingly, the Mets GM at the time of the Vaughn injury was Jim Duquette, Dan Duquette’s cousin. With the number of players whose careers have ended abruptly and the skyrocketing cost of their contracts, either insurers are going to avoid covering the contracts at all or the premiums will increase substantially – neither of which is optimal for the clubs.
Was this Balfour contract breakdown part of a diabolical scheme on the part of the Orioles to get out of a deal they were having second thoughts about? Do they owe an explanation? Is it fair that Balfour, his agents and the media are searching for qualified doctors to insist that Balfour is healthy in an attempt to shame the Orioles and save the pitcher’s free agent bona fides?
I find it hard to believe that anyone from the Orioles coerced their team doctors to find a reason they could use not to sign Balfour. The idea that the medical staff and the Orioles “owe” anyone an explanation is ludicrous. So too is Balfour’s camp turning this into a battle of examinations, credentials and analysis among doctors. The real culprits are the timing and hunt for stories among the media and the desire for clubs, agents and players to have stories going viral to ensure that there’s good press and the deals are completed. In short, it all stems from deals being announced before they’re official. In most instances, the medicals are a formality. In some, there’s a problem that can’t be ignored. The doctor-patient relationship is supposed to be confidential. How can the Orioles’ doctors share Balfour’s information especially if it is regarded as damaging to him?
Teams, agents and players all benefit from stories of signings being leaked unless something unexpected like this happens. Because the Orioles were under scrutiny for their lack of spending this winter, the signing of Balfour tamped down fan anger slightly in spite of Balfour being an average closer who won’t make much difference to a team like the Orioles one way or the other. At least they did something. The agents and players benefit because once the story is public, it’s harder for a team to do what the Orioles did and back out. But that’s a dual-edged sword. It rarely happens, but sometimes there are reasons that deals fall apart. In this case it did. The Orioles don’t owe Balfour anything. It’s not fair to Balfour that this is out there, but if he’s as healthy as he claims to be, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about, should there? He should sign with a team and shove it to the Orioles, right?
But it’s being blotted out that maybe there is something wrong. If Balfour goes to the mound at some point in 2014 and blows out his shoulder, will there still be this vitriol against Duquette and the Orioles? Or will there be a repeat of what happened with Clemens as people quietly acknowledge that Duquette was right and he wasn’t simply being vindictive to cover himself? Will there be retractions or will it just be swept away and ignored in lieu of that acceptance that there was no vendetta? Maybe it should be taken at face value. It was a medical report the Orioles didn’t like. They decided not to sign Balfour because of it. That’s their right and they don’t have to explain themselves for exercising it.