Nations: Roberts’ departure probably for best

Finally, the Baltimore Orioles have started grabbing a few headlines — with some help from the hated New York Yankees.

On Tuesday, news of longtime O’s second baseman Brian Roberts’ signing with the Yankees sent barely a ripple through the baseball world. After all, the 36-year-old has been a mere shadow of the player who was once the undisputed star of the Baltimore franchise. Injuries, lots of them, dimmed Roberts’ light as the relegated him more and more to the bench.

Five years ago, Roberts going to the Yankees would have been unfathomable — the Orioles certainly thought so when they signed their franchise cornerstone to a four-year, $40 million deal. It sure seemed like a good idea at the time, before Roberts suddenly appeared to be made of glass. Roberts even managed to avoid much of the backlash against players whose names appeared on the 2007 Mitchell Report on performance enhancing drug users; Roberts admitted to using, but still maintained his popularity in Baltimore and was largely ignored as the rest of the baseball world focused on the likes of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

Roberts might have maintained that shining star right through that PED mess, if only he’d been able to stay on the field. A gritty, blue-collar player who could make all the routine plays and then some in the field and was well above-average with the bat, Roberts never could 100 percent healthy following a strong season in 2009. There were the usual ailments — a pulled hamstring here, an abdominal ailment there — then a hip that required surgery. After that, it was concussions — two of them. Roberts, once one of the game’s most durable players, went from 159 games in 2009 to 59 the following year, then 39, then just 17 in 2012. That, of course, was Baltimore’s magical run to the playoffs season — Roberts could only watch from the bench, unable to play.

Last season, Roberts managed the most playing time he’d accumulated in four years — 77 games, 265 at bats, eight homers, 39 RBIs and a .249 batting average. For the last three months of the season, he even regained the starting position he once seemed locked to hold for years.

That might have been enough to bring Roberts back to Baltimore for another season, if both sides had wanted that. Indications as recent as September were there was mutual interest in keeping Roberts in Baltimore for a 14th season. Something changed, though, and on Tuesday the Yankees and Roberts agreed on a modest one-year, $2 million deal.

It’s doubtful the Bombers think Roberts is a suitable replacement for departed All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano, but their recent penny-pinching ways (an effort to get below baseball’s luxury tax threshold) made them more amenable to taking a low-risk chance on a former perennial All-Star like Roberts. It’s a strange notion, thinking of the mighty Yankees as bargain hunters and the once-dazzling Roberts as veritable thrift-store find, but that’s the reality of it.

It will be odd for Orioles fans to see Roberts in pinstripes next season — whether he’s on the field or not is sadly a ongoing question — but they’ll likely get over it soon enough. The days of a franchise icon along the lines of Cal Ripken Jr. seem unlikely to return — once, Roberts might have been that player, but injuries robbed him of what could have been some of his prime seasons. There is a sense that Baltimore fans are preoccupied with the good deal they got in signing free-agent closer Grant Balfour on Tuesday, rather than mourning the departure of a still-liked but once-beloved star.

Roberts did go willingly to New York, of course, but hopefully the O’s faithful at Camden Yards won’t hold that against him too much. Maybe he felt a change of scenery might improve his luck — maybe it’s not such a bad idea, for Roberts or the Orioles.

In any event, let’s hope the greeting in Baltimore is a friendly one for at least one Yankee next season. Roberts deserves that much.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>