Johnson was in the final year of arbitration and will probably make around $10 million. Balfour gets two years and $15 million, so the Orioles traded away a more expensive closer while getting a cheaper one with an extra year guaranteed. Closers aren't the most consistent players around, something Johnson showed the past two seasons, so while the obvious answer is that this seems like an upgrade considering Johnson's 2013 campaign, that's not necessarily the case.
Johnson led the league in saves each of the past two seasons and had similar ERAs, but in 2012 he was a player who received MVP votes, and in 2013 he was a pariah. The difference: when he allowed his runs. The numbers:
2012: 2-1, 2.49 ERA, 51 saves, 3 blown saves
2013: 3-8, 2.94 ERA, 50 saves, 9 blown saves
As you can see from the eight losses, Johnson didn't just blow leads -- he lost games. The Orioles were 75-1 when leading after eight innings in 2012 and 73-9 in 2013. The Orioles, despite allowing just four more runs overall while scoring 32 more, won eight fewer games.
But that doesn't mean Johnson was going to struggle again in save situations. His strikeout percentage was actually higher than in 2012 and his walk percentage about the same; he allowed only two more home runs, but in 2012, he allowed a .251 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), and in 2013, he allowed a .327 BABIP. Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane is betting it was just some bad luck -- some ground balls with eyes. Orioles GM Dan Duquette couldn't look past all those blown saves.
Balfour has spent the past season and a half as the Oakland closer, saving 67 games while blowing five. He throws a mid-90s fastball, a slider and occasional curveball, whereas Johnson relied primarily on a hard sinker that induced a lot of ground balls. While Balfour gets more strikeouts and allows fewer hits, he also walks more batters and gives up more home runs. He's allowed 19 home runs the past three seasons with the A's -- playing in one of the more pitcher-friendly ballparks for home runs in the American League. He goes to Camden Yards; what if those seven home runs become 10 or 11?
After trading Johnson, the Orioles did need a closer, so I'm not bashing the signing. Their other top relievers -- Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz -- all have sizable platoon splits, so none of those three made for a good candidate to be a closer, who needs to be good against both sides. Orioles manager Buck Showalter now has his ninth-inning guy and can use the other three to match up in the seventh and eighth innings.
But the exchange of Johnson for Balfour doesn't really make the Orioles better; the team's ninth-inning record was likely to be a little better anyway in 2014.
Now, to become a legitimate playoff contender, the Orioles need to make another move. They lost Nate McLouth to free agency, so right now their left field/DH combo would come from Nolan Reimold, Steve Pearce, Danny Valencia and Henry Urrutia, which isn't too inspiring. Second base is still a question with Ryan Flaherty, Jemile Weeks (acquired for Johnson) and prospect Jonathan Schoop. Chris Davis probably won't hit 53 home runs again. After Davis, the next-highest OBP among the regulars was Nick Markakis' .329. One returning starter pitched more than 180 innings.
Signing Balfour plugs a hole, but how do the Orioles go from an 85-win team to a 93-win playoff team again? Unless they have some improvements from guys like Matt Wieters and Markakis, I have trouble seeing the Orioles winning 90 without adding an impact hitter and another starter.