When the Baltimore Orioles chose not to match the five-year, $47-million contract that B.J. Ryan signed with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2006 it seemed to be just another example of the Orioles lack of commitment toward building a winner. However, in hindsight it appears to have been one of several smart decisions by a team looking toward the future.
The emergence of Ryan as the Orioles’ closer in 2005 had been one of few bright spots in a season that was best known for the embarrassing suspension of Rafael Palmeiro and a 30-51 record over the second half of the season.
Ryan, who joined the Orioles as part of a trade with the Cincinnati Reds in 1999, spent five years as a leading set-up man for the Orioles before being given a chance to serve as closer in 2005.
He responded with 36 saves, a 2.43 ERA and his first All-Star appearance.
However, his time closing out games for the Orioles was short-lived as Ryan signed with Toronto after the season.
Baltimore certainly would have preferred to keep the services of the fireball throwing lefty, but with a roster that was being purged of a glut of older players, the Orioles were obviously not going to be a contender for some time and were best served not signing Ryan to an expensive long-term contract.
The move actually seemed to work for all sides in 2006. Ryan received a hefty raise and earned a second straight All-Star spot while saving 38 games.
Chris Ray moved into the closer role for the Orioles and saved 33 games while earning only a fraction of Ryan’s salary at $335,000 a year.
Ironically, in 2007 both Ryan and Ray suffered arm injuries and underwent Tommy John surgery.
While Ray has been slower to recover, Ryan rebounded to appear in 60 games in 2008 and saved 32 games with a 2.95 ERA.
However, Ryan struggled this season for the Jays and eventually lost his closer role to Scott Downs. He was released earlier this week after registering a 1-1 record with 6.53 ERA and just two saves in 25 appearances.
There certainly is no way to predict injuries, but given that Ryan was 30 and had racked up more than 400 career appearances when he signed with the Jays, it isn’t a complete surprise that he didn’t make it through the length of his contract.
Sometimes the best moves are the ones a team doesn’t make and for the Orioles not keeping Ryan proved to be a smart business decision.
Instead of having the albatross around their neck of a long-term contract with an aging closer, the Orioles have been able to invest in building the team for the long haul.
It is possible that were the Orioles on the hook to Ryan for $10 million a year, they would have been unable to sign both Nick Markakis and Brian Roberts to long-term contracts.
Keeping Ryan might also have impacted some of the trade decisions the team has made over the last couple years. Had they invested in a veteran closer, the team might have been reluctant to jettison so many veterans (like Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada) in exchange for young players that are now foundation pieces on the Birds.
That Ryan ultimately didn’t enjoy the kind of success in Toronto that his contract demanded makes it look like the Orioles made the right decision back in 2006.
However, the truth is that the decision Baltimore made on Ryan would have been right even if the lefty was still racking up saves and All-Star appearances.
The Orioles are building for the future and B.J. Ryan is a remnant from the past.