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The A's bizarre fascination with $11 million reliever Jim Johnson

Greg Fiume

I'm not wild about the Scott Kazmir deal for the A's. It seems excessive to give two guaranteed, expensive years for a pitcher who crawled out of a swamp to surprise us mildly last year. Then consider that he sure faced a lot of patsies in his brilliant second half, which is the reason for most Kazmir-related optimism.

However, I figure that Billy Beane is much, much smarter than me. He would crush me in fantasy baseball, and he would crush me in real baseball. He would crush me in Baseball Stars, even if I did the "When is it?" code, and he would crush me in a game of backgammon. So I'll give Kazmir the benefit of the doubt. I wish I could tell myself that his velocity steadily increased, and that's why Beane paid that much, but Kazmir's velocity chart looks like some sort of puzzle from Myst.

I figure the A's know what they're doing.

Every once in a while, there's a John Mabry trade, though. You don't have to travel back to 2002 to find one. The A's could have had a Nelson Cruz/Carlos Gonzalez/Andre Ethier outfield for the last half-decade if they hadn't been giddy with the trade button. The one that sticks in my mind, though, is Jeremy Giambi for John Mabry. The former was a Ken Phelps All-Star, with sterling OBPs as a professional. The latter was a poor man's Ross Gload. The trade was baffling. It made no sense.

Enter the Jim Johnson trade. The A's traded Jemile Weeks for the former Orioles closer. That's not a bad deal on a player-for-player level. Weeks needed a new home, since the A's weren't going to save a starting job for him. Johnson is a high-quality reliever, and he makes up for missed bats with ground balls. In a vacuum, the trade seems to work.

But the reason the Orioles wanted to trade Johnson in the first place is that he's scheduled to make around $11 million in American currency, which seems excessive. Like, really excessive. For any team. If the Dodgers paid Johnson that much for a single season, I'd think, wow, that's a lot of money for a closer.

The A's, though, aren't any team. They operate under a strict budget, and they do well within those constraints. In past years, their big-budget outlays included signing Frank Thomas to be their DH (awesome), keeping Eric Chavez instead of Miguel Tejada (less awesome), and paying Ben Sheets not to pitch (bleh). They've entered the retail market before, with mixed results. All of the ideas behind the money made sense, though.

Relievers? For a disproportionate percent of the team's meager budget? There's TV money coming in, sure, but a $10 million reliever is like paying six dollars for movie-theater popcorn in nickels. You can do it if you stretch the budget, but is that really the best use of those nickels? You can buy other movie tickets. Or Junior Mints. Maybe Sour Patch Kids if you're an animal. Or heat for your house. Point is, budget-minded teams shouldn't spend big on relievers. It's a rule.

There's no reason to rail against an overpayment without mentioning the alternative, though. So let's look for the different ways the A's could have spent that money.

Starting lineup

You have to get on some next-level stuff to see a reason why you would want to replace most of these players. Are there better first basemen than Brandon Moss? Certainly, but not on the free-agent market. Maybe if they signed Mike Napoli, then traded Moss for prospects, then traded the prospects for some relievers to fill Grant Balfour's spot, but I'm not going to get lost in that morass of hypotheticals. They have legitimate major leaguers at every spot.

Starting rotation

That's Jarrod Parker, Scott Kazmir, Sonny Gray, Dan Straily, and A.J. Griffin to you. I see room for improvement. I don't see room for Ricky Nolasco, which is where the extra money saved on Johnson would go. Kazmir + Johnson + $10 million = Nolasco, actually.

The A's paid $3 million for the actual Nick Punto. What more does a bench need? The rest of the reserves are just fine.

We meet again, bullpen. Turns out you were the A's best hope for a quick fix.

It's not a Mabry trade. It's a trade for a team that's set with 20 or 21 of their roster spots. The A's spending $11 million on Johnson so they don't have to guarantee $15 million to Brian Wilson, or take a chance on this generation's Colter Bean, or something. Since the powers that be junked the idea of spending on amateur players, this is about as good as the A's can use their money. I might have chosen a different, strikeout-friendly reliever, but the idea's still sound.

The A's didn't have a lot of holes. What holes they had, they filled. The exact permutation of those contracts isn't as important to me. With context, Weeks-for-Johnson makes sense. Considering the money involved, it moves right back over to not making sense. Then, considering the A's specific needs, it starts making a little sense again.

Fine, fine. I'll keep tithing. Beane probably knows what he's doing, still. There might have been a way to leverage that money in trades, but it would have come at the cost of possibly losing Kazmir and/or other free agents of note.

It turns out there's another category of teams that can afford a premium closer: mostly complete teams that don't have anywhere else to funnel the money. Do whatever it is you do, A's. We'll stop scrutinizing every move.

Also of note: the Mabry trade worked out. He hit .275/.322/.533 in his brief time with the A's, even though he'd done nothing like that in his career. Mabry it's time to stop second-guessing Billy Beane's trades.