Buster Olney tweeted this afternoon that the Royals are wanting to work something out with Josh Johnson, the right-hander who was acquired by the Blue Jays last off-season and had a rough 2013. Johnson isn’t exactly known as the picture of health, having made more than 30 starts just twice in his career. He’s believed to be interested in a one-year deal to rebuild value after a dismal year where he made just 16 starts and posted a 6.20 ERA. Prior to joining the Blue Jays, Johnson pitched parts of eight seasons with the Marlins and was very, very good. He made 144 starts in those seasons, going 56-37 with a 3.15 ERA. He was stingy with homers, got his fair share of strikeouts and walked three per nine innings.
Now, he’s looking for a make good deal and the Royals appear to be a good fit for him as they’re looking for a veteran presence in the rotation for the 2014 season to fill the void of Ervin Santana, who will almost assuredly sign elsewhere. Even as bad as he was last year, the peripherals indicate he was somewhat unlucky as he allowed a ridiculous .356 BABIP and allowed way more homers than he had at any point in his career. What’s the most promising is that while his ERA was above 6, his xFIP (Fielding Independent Pitching with homers neutralized) was 3.58. That’d be welcome. His health (which I assume would be something the deal was contingent on) combined with luck evening out somewhat would make him a likely candidate to far exceed his numbers from 2013.
I like the idea of Josh Johnson because you’re looking at a short term risk on a pitcher who could turn into a legitimate number one or two starter for the 2014 season. He’s no guarantee, of course, but as I mentioned a few days ago, teams have to get lucky sometimes on some pitchers and I’ll always take a gamble on talent if given the opportunity to do so. I remember when he signed that four year deal that just ended how similar it was to the Greinke deal and I thought the Marlins made out like bandits because I actually liked Johnson a little more than I liked Greinke even. His injury troubles got in the way, but he’s a talent for sure.
The profile on Johnson is that he throws hard, though not as hard as he used to, and he gets a good amount of ground balls. The turf in Toronto couldn’t have been good for a guy like him, and I think the defense in Toronto left something to be desired. The fact that he generates swings and misses is very attractive to me. As with any pitcher, I like his chances of improving when moving from a team with limitations like the Blue Jays to a team like the Royals where the defense and the grass could help him put together a better season.
Still, this obviously isn’t a proposition without risk. If Josh Johnson had been healthy through the 2013 season, he’d be the one talking about the $100 million contract probably. He’s probably the most talented free agent pitcher on the market, as long as he’s healthy, and that’s the rub with him. If he’s the only pitching acquisition the Royals make this off-season, then they didn’t do a good enough job, even though it does end up working out. I think counting on Johnson to be the guy he’s capable of is similar to counting on a guy like Mike Moustakas to improve. It could very well happen, but there’s no guarantee.
If Johnson ends up getting hurt and missing time, I do like the arms the Royals are equipped with to fill the void for a few starts here and there. A guy like Kyle Zimmer could fill the void if Johnson can stay healthy for a couple months and even if he can’t, guys like Will Smith and Yordano Ventura would be perfectly capable of making five or six starts (or more in the case of Ventura) while Johnson is getting healthy. The Royals do have talent in their pitching depth for the first time in years. Whether it’s ready is another story, but Josh Johnson can help to bridge that gap for those who aren’t quite ready yet.
If it’s me, I’d try to get a team option tacked onto Johnson’s contract. I’d go maybe one year and $8 million with an option that vests at 180 innings or becomes a team option if it doesn’t vest for maybe $14 million in 2015. This way, the Royals have the opportunity to get an extra year out of him if things go well in 2014, or they can walk away from a lost season in 2014 if things don’t go well. The saying goes that there’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal and I completely agree with that. I’ll add that there’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal for pitchers with immense talent like Johnson possesses. If this deal comes to fruition, I think it will be a worthwhile gamble on Dayton Moore’s part, and probably an even better gamble than Ervin Santana last off-season. It’s a risk, but a worthwhile one. We’ll see if it happens in coming days.
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