You can give it this — the Orioles’ signing of Yovani Gallardo seemed like it was going to be pretty dull all-around, but now it’s becoming fascinating, thanks to a recent and familiar little twist. See, Gallardo still isn’t officially signed, and word is it’s because the Orioles aren’t comfortable with what they’ve seen so far in his medicals. I believe they’re waiting on results from more tests; I believe the issue is the health of his shoulder. So for the time being, the Orioles don’t yet have a starting pitcher they want, and that same starting pitcher is having to worry about an even further depressed market for his services. Nobody roots for these things.
It feels familiar because it’s the Orioles, and this is far from the first time the organization has wound up in a place like this. This further cements the team’s reputation for having an almost impossibly rigorous physical, and it can be rough, on Orioles players and fans alike. No one likes having the rug taken out from under them, and that’s exactly how it feels when these issues come up. It seems like it reflects poorly on ownership, and Peter Angelos has certainly taken a large amount of crap over the years. I’m not here to broadly attack or defend Peter Angelos. It just feels like it’s time to talk about the Orioles’ reputation, how true it is, and what it could mean.
You know what we don’t have? Statistics. We can compare the Orioles’ team ERA to all the other team ERAs, but we can’t easily compare the Orioles’ standard physical to all the other teams’ standard physicals. I think we do have enough information to say it’s tougher than average. It very well might be the toughest in baseball. It’s worth remembering procedures are always changing, but the Orioles do seem to be particularly cautious. They’d probably say as much, even if they used a different word.
Importantly: the majority of players pass the Orioles physical. Maybe you could call it the overwhelming majority of players. Issues do pop up, and those generate attention, because “pending physical” tends to be taken as a formality and it’s weird when it’s not. But the Orioles pass a lot of players. The system isn’t designed to fail 10 or 20 or 50 percent of those who go through it.
Now we can consider the Orioles’ history. Right now, they’re trying to figure out if they can proceed with Gallardo. That’s why this post is being written in the first place. Very visibly, a few years ago, the Orioles failed Grant Balfour, and that pissed Balfour off. He did sign another contract with another team, but other medical professionals came out publicly to disagree with the Orioles’ findings. (Balfour turned out to be bad, and he lost two miles per hour.) The same offseason, the Orioles didn’t like what they saw in Tyler Colvin‘s physical, and they tried to re-work an agreement.
The Orioles had the same thing happen with Jair Jurrjens, and they converted a major-league contract into a minor-league contract. Relatedly, the Orioles pulled away from Nick Markakis because of concerns about his health. That didn’t come out of a post-agreement physical, but it speaks to the caution.
If you want to go back several years, concerns led the Orioles to move away from Jeromy Burnitz, who then signed elsewhere and was bad. And famously, the Orioles decided not to sign Aaron Sele because they didn’t like what they saw in his shoulder. Sele went on to have some success in Seattle, although he promptly lost his strikeouts and did experience shoulder problems. The reality of that one is different from how it’s remembered.
The organizational caution might simply be the consequence of what happened with Xavier Hernandez almost two decades ago. The Orioles signed him, then they found out he had a bum shoulder, and they voided the deal. Hernandez went after them for that, and he got himself a hefty settlement, but he didn’t pitch in the majors again, and now those physicals are routine league-wide. No team wants to get stuck paying money to someone who’s not on the field.
Over the course of all this time, different people have offered the Orioles their medical opinions. The medical staff hasn’t remained constant, but then, the ownership has, so what happens below is presumably a reflection of the preferences from above. Angelos wants for his doctors to be thorough. Every owner wants the doctors to be thorough, but Angelos especially so, it seems. The physicals don’t even capture everything. After the Orioles signed Tsuyoshi Wada he very quickly needed Tommy John surgery. So even still, little things can slip through the cracks, and the idea is for ownership to pay as little money as possible to the disabled list. You can never eliminate it all, but you can try to get closer.
All we’ve talked about to this point are the Orioles. It’s the Orioles who have the reputation, so it’s the Orioles who, in turn, get examined the most thoroughly. And maybe that’s fair, but it’s important to note that other teams have players fail physicals, too. The Orioles aren’t necessarily exceptional. Consider, say, that three-way Jay Bruce trade that was just recently rumored. According to reports, that trade died because of medical concerns. Last season, the Mets backed out of a Carlos Gomez trade agreement because of medical concerns. This winter, the Yankees moved away from Tommy Hunter because of his medicals, and the Dodgers moved away from Hisashi Iwakuma because of his medicals. You remember what happened with the Astros and Brady Aiken. On a smaller scale, the Yankees also nixed a would-be agreement with Hideki Okajima, and Chad Gaudin failed a physical with the Phillies just a few years back. That’s just me doing some quick Googling; I’m sure there’s more out there, and I’m sure there are failed physicals that simply don’t get leaked to the media.
Players fail physicals. Not often, but it happens, and it happens everywhere, because every team has doctors looking to spot potential problems. The Iwakuma case this winter was similar to the Balfour case from before, except that Iwakuma didn’t make such a big deal of it to the press. The Dodgers saw something, so they tried to re-work their agreement. The Mariners swooped back in, and subsequently said they don’t know what it is that scared the Dodgers off, because they’re perfectly satisfied. Medical interpretations aren’t always cut and dry, not when you’re dealing with elbows and shoulders and various wears and tears. It’s commonplace for doctors to disagree, and the guys working for the Orioles might simply see X% more future problems than the average doctor.
It’s difficult to argue this has worked against the team. It’s difficult in large part because these issues have just been infrequent. But the Orioles weren’t worse off for losing Balfour. They weren’t worse off for losing Colvin. We’ll see if they lose Gallardo, and if they’re better or worse for it. For sure, in theory, the reputation is a negative, because it might scare agents and players off. There was speculation Bronson Arroyo didn’t want to put himself through the Orioles’ physical. No one would look forward to it, but baseball is a business with just 30 big-league employers, all of whom have different needs. You can’t really be that picky, and besides, money is money. If a player is confident he’s healthy, he wouldn’t worry very much. And if a player knows he has some issues, he’d expect for those issues to be discovered anywhere. The issue with Balfour came from Balfour assuming he was physically fine, and though the Orioles disagreed, future players will assume they’re also physically fine, so they won’t anticipate the same problem. And given the chance, again — almost all those players would pass.
There’s no denying the Orioles are pretty tough. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. From a labor perspective, it’s worse for the players, but the Orioles get to work in their own interests and I don’t see any compelling evidence this has cost them much. So it’s just one of the things that comes with reaching an agreement there, and given the offseason the Orioles have had it’s not like players are trying to stay away, or that Angelos is trying to pinch every penny. Maybe the reputation makes the Orioles a few percentage points less likely to sign a given free agent. Maybe the approach also makes the Orioles a few percentage points less likely to end up paying a lemon. The Orioles are obviously comfortable with the trade-off. Yovani Gallardo might not love it, but at the end of the day, that seems like it’s Yovani Gallardo’s problem.
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