On Monday, I wrote about Yovani Gallardo coming to terms on a three-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles, although the final deal turned into two years and an option. The point was to stress that due to Gallardo's ground-ballin' ways, he could be an asset for nearly any team regardless of home park run-environment. He appears to be a good fit in Baltimore, and for a team that is still filling out their 25-man roster in mid-February, it seemed like a good win-win for both the club and the player. In retrospect, I should have known better.
Baltimore has a staff of physicians just like any other major-league team. They are not unique in their process of ensuring a player is healthy prior to signing them to deals. They have, however, developed a reputation for analyzing and scrutinizing medical reports more than most other teams, and rightly or wrongly, the Orioles are notorious for nixing players due to failed physicals and questionable medicals.
There is public relations risk in the narrative created by the Orioles during these failed physicals. Peter Angelos is hardly viewed as a generous owner as it is, and he's not viewed as the type of owner willing to do whatever it takes to get the best talent to Camden Yards. Subsequently, there are many who claim the stringent medical criteria is simply an excuse to show they are interested in players but the risk is too great; the O's mantra of "we tried but it was out of our control" seems to have been used so often it would make James Taggart blush.
It is a bit curious that Yovani Gallardo, a nine-year veteran who has never been on the disabled list with a shoulder, arm, or elbow issue, suddenly looks like he's ready to break down, and the Orioles' lack of controlling the narrative does not help the matter:
Sources: O's will not finish the Yovani Gallardo deal if they come to believe a breakdown is likely in the middle of the 3-year contract.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) February 24, 2016
Considering the world's most renowned doctors can neither predict the timing of an injury nor the injury type, this insinuation largely comes across as a false certainty. After all, if these doctors are able to predict injuries better than other doctors, they wouldn't be working for the Orioles, they'd likely be making significantly more money elsewhere.
Jeff Sullivan wrote about this topic yesterday at FanGraphs, but he focused more on the big picture. We might find it useful to go back several years and discuss what players were nixed by the Orioles medical staff and how they fared after finding a new home...if they found a new home.
Nick Markakis was the most recent Oriole to have an offer pulled due to health questions. An MRI and pending back surgery caused the O's to withdraw their $40 million four-year commitment to the outfielder. Markakis ended up signing with Atlanta where he played in 156 games and put up a .296/.370/.376 slash line. Though the power is seemingly gone, the health (far as we know) has not been a problem as yet. There is still time for the Braves' contract to go awry, so stay tuned. Ultimately, to this point, the Orioles' concerns are less than confirmed.
After the 2013 season, the Orioles reportedly came to terms on a two-year, $15 million contract with reliever Grant Balfour. The then 35-year-old was coming off an All-Star season in which he he struck out 72 batters over 62.2 innings. It is worth mentioning that Balfour had shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff earlier in his career, but that was eight years prior to failing the Baltimore physical.
Balfour signed with the Rays and did not miss any time due to injury. He threw 62.1 innings but his strikeouts took a nosedive from 72 in 2013 to 57, and his walks nearly doubled from 27 to 41.
The Orioles may have whiffed on the medicals, though it is also possible he pitched through injury rendering him ineffective. Whether it was diving into medicals or sheer luck, Baltimore dodged a bullet considering he only pitched 4.1 innings in 2015 and the Rays DFA'd him.
Another example of caution is Jair Jurrjens. Coming off a terrible 2012 with Colorado, he was viewed as a low-risk potentially high-reward rotational piece. In January of 2013, Baltimore and Jurrjens agreed to a $1.5 million one-year deal with Baltimore, laced with $4 million in incentives. A month later however, due to the results of a physical, it was downgraded to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training. Whether it was health-related or not, Jurrjens career was essentially over at this point. He barely matriculated to the majors, only pitching seven innings for Baltimore in 2013, and since then he's only pitched nine major-league innings.
Colvin may be an unknown to most fans since he's been a replacement-level player a good portion of his career. He did, however, post a 1.8 fWAR for the Cubs in 2010 and 2.0 fWAR in 2012 for Colorado. Baltimore agreed to terms with Colvin in January 2014, but the deal fell apart amidst concerns about his back.
The Giants ended up signing him to add bench-depth, and he played in over 100 games being shuttled from Triple-A and the majors. Since the Orioles passed on Colvin, he has not been on the disabled list, nor has he missed time in Triple-A due to injury. Looks like a swing and miss for the Orioles, although is anyone really pining for Tyler Colvin?
Sardinha signed a minor league contract with Baltimore in the offseason of 2012 which was nullified shortly afterwards following a failed physical. Sardinha was coming off an injury-plagued 2011 and never gained traction as an everyday starter. The Orioles doctors basically confirmed what other teams seemingly already knew.
In 2006, Jeromy Burnitz walked away from a $12 million two-year offer from the O's because of the language in the contract related to his health. Burnitz was offended by the Orioles' wording nullifying his deal if he were to fail their physical. The Orioles' narrative was simply that Burnitz had changed his mind upon further review of the deal. He signed a $6 million contract with Pittsburgh where he played in 111 games, slashing .230/.289/.422 and hit 16 home runs. He hung it up after the season.
Perhaps the best and highest profile example of this is Aaron Sele. In January of 2000, Baltimore and Sele agreed to a four-year, $29 million contract. Coming off two near 5-Win (per FanGraphs WAR) seasons with the Rangers, Sele was primed for a payday. The parties came to terms and it looked like Sele would be a key member of the Orioles 2000 rotation behind Mike Mussina. Amidst medical concerns and the decree by Baltimore doctors that he had only 400 innings left in his arm, Baltimore revised the terms to a two-year contract which caused Sele to scoff and move on to another team.
The Mariners signed him to a two-year deal which went fairly well; Sele pitched nearly 430 innings over the life of that two-year contract and he posted 4.3- and 2.7-fWAR seasons, respectively. His strikeout rate continued downward, and Sele did suffer a rotator cuff injury when with the Angels, though it was over 550 innings and 8.5 Wins after Baltimore let him walk.
Going back even further, in 1999, reliever Xavier Hernandez agreed to a two-year deal with Baltimore but never pitched after failing his physical due to a torn rotator cuff. In an interesting twist, Hernandez cashed in because the O's never put into the contract that the deal was contingent on him passing the physical. The Orioles paid him $1.75 million as part of his grievance settlement and he never pitched again. In this case, the physical did spot something significant, but put this in the ‘oops' category anyway!
Evaluating a player's health is all about paying for risk and conducting due diligence on expensive assets. The fact that these players are largely bench pieces or bullpen arms is largely irrelevant; it does not appear the Orioles medical staff is any more or less knowledgeable than any other team and much of this can be chalked up to sheer coincidence. In any event, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle: all free agents have their warts, and under intense scrutiny, a team can always find a way to nix a deal. On the other hand, sometimes teams have to take a risk in order to put themselves in a position to succeed; it's something Baltimore has a reputation of not doing.