Josh Johnson Early Candidate For Best Offseason Bargain
Josh Johnson could have signed with the Yankees and pitched half his home games in New York's bandbox, and yet he still would have been considered a strong rebound candidate for 2014 -- the fact he went back to the National League to pitch for the Padres only furthers that line of thinking.
Johnson, coming off the worst season of his career, will leave the American League East and Rogers Centre -- one of the top hitting parks in baseball -- for the NL West and Petco Park, one of the most run-suppressing parks in the game. In addition, when factoring in that he gets to face a pitcher instead of a designated hitter when he rolls through an opposing lineup, there are some clear advantages, in theory, to switching parks and leagues.
But there's much more to the notion that Johnson is poised for a strong year in 2014, assuming he doesn't have any health-related issues -- which really shouldn't be assumed at all.
Johnson comes equipped with some red flags -- he made two trips to the disabled list in 2013, both of which were a result of arm injuries. He was forced to the shelf in May with right triceps inflammation and was later shut down for the season after a forearm strain sent him back to the DL in August. The right-hander was forced to undergo offseason surgery on his elbow to remove bone spurs and this is coming from a player who, in addition to his most recent operation, has gone under the knife to repair shoulder and elbow injuries before.
As has always been the case with Johnson, however, his talent makes it easier to look past his injury history. When he has been on the field, he has performed at a high level with the exception of his 2013 season with the Blue Jays. How much the injuries affected his performance we will never know, but it's safe to assume it played a part.
What to like about Johnson
The fact Johnson's lone year in Toronto deviated so far from his career norms doesn't guarantee that he's going to bounce back, although it absolutely plays a factor. We know Johnson is a good pitcher -- his career numbers are the proof, and that data is much more representative of the type of pitcher he is than his 2013 season. But he also performed well in certain statistical areas during his treacherous year in Toronto, which saw him post a 6.20 ERA over 81 1/3 innings.
He was a strikeout-per-inning guy, generated the second highest percentage of swings and misses in his career, and had his lowest walk rate since 2010. Johnson was crushed by an abnormally high home run rate and opposing batters, feasting on his fastball, hit a whopping .305/.363/.488 off him. He got rocked early and often, more balls in play fell than ever before -- his batting average on balls in play was .356 in 2013 compared to a career mark of .302 -- and he was much worse pitching out of the stretch, something that was documented often throughout the year.
The two-time All-Star stranded just 63.3 percent of runners, which is well below his career mark (74.2 percent), and well off what the league-average rates have historically been (the low-70s range).
Johnson's line-drive rate trended upward for the second consecutive year, above league average and a career-high number, but the percentage of liners he surrendered was nearly identical to what it was in 2012 when he had a strong season in Miami. His groundball rate, meanwhile, was slightly above what the league-average mark has been over the last decade, and his fly ball rate was below his career mark. But, somehow, he managed to post a whopping 18.5 home run to fly ball ratio, which is more than double his next highest mark in a single season. Only three pitchers (minimum 80 innings) posted a higher mark in 2013.
Again, home runs killed him. Johnson's xFIP -- a run-estimating and defense-independent stat which attempts to measure what a pitcher's ERA should have been by, among other things, adjusting BABIP and home run to fly ball rates to league average, opposed to what they actually were -- was much better than his ERA. The reality is that Johnson's ERA is representative of the way he pitched -- he got destroyed most outings -- but home runs and a higher-than-usual BABIP were main culprits for that, and there's a very real chance he doesn't approach those levels again.
Johnson's 3.58 xFIP was tops among Blue Jays starters. This stat is especially important when predicting Johnson's future performance because, minus last season, he has never been homer-prone or posted a BABIP that high. If his home run rate and BABIP settle back down to career norms in 2014, his ERA should drop significantly, and could resemble what his xFIP was with Toronto. That's no given, but it's quite possible last season was simply a hiccup in his career.
What also helps in that regard is that Johnson will be pitching his home games at Petco Park, a much kinder environment for pitchers than Rogers Centre. Balls don't leave the yard in San Diego like they do in Toronto.
Even if Johnson continues surrendering line drives at the rate he has over the last two years -- a noticeable spike from his previous seasons -- his BABIP is not necessarily destined to follow suit. He posted a .302 BABIP in 2012 with nearly identical line drive, groundball, and fly ball rates.
The Minneapolis native's fastball velocity was consistent with his 2012 season, averaging over 93 mph, and he got by just fine that year -- in a much friendlier park in Miami, mind you -- but his heater is a pitch that was crushed last season, with righties, in particular, doing damage against him (right-handed batters hit .477 off his four-seam fastball). Doing a better job of locating appears to be the biggest issue, not a loss of life on the pitch. Velocity isn't everything, as movement and command are important, too, but it's a good sign that Johnson, while battling injury, didn't see a decline in speed.
Why it's a good deal for San Diego
The average annual value for starting pitchers on the open market who are similar to Johnson's talent level will far exceed the $8 million San Diego owes him and come with a much greater length of years, making Johnson's deal a no-brainer for the Padres. He's off the books at the end of the season.
If Johnson makes 26 starts, he'll earn an additional $1.5 million, and if he makes fewer than seven starts, San Diego would hold a $4 million club option on him for 2015. This is a player who, heading into the 2013 campaign, was supposed to command a monster contract this offseason as one of the most appealing free agents on the market.
Johnson probably made more sense for a contender, but in his introductory press conference in San Diego, he said the Giants and Padres were the two teams he preferred to pitch for, and San Francisco recently plugged a hole in its rotation with the signing of Tim Hudson, so there may have been a lack of interest on its part. And San Diego, even though it doesn't look like a playoff-caliber team, has nothing to lose -- minus a few million dollars -- by signing Johnson at that price.
He's as strong a rebound candidate as there is and has a good shot of recapturing some of the money he lost this offseason by dropping a dud in Toronto. A strong year in San Diego will net him plenty of multi-year offers with a much higher AAV than the $8 million he inked for 2014.
If he pitches well and San Diego is out of contention by the deadline -- more likely than not but no given with its potentially strong rotation -- the Padres can move him to a contender and probably receive a solid return. On the other hand, if the Padres are competitive and Johnson is healthy, he can help them fight for a postseason spot and then the club can make him a qualifying offer at the end of the season and receive draft-pick compensation if he declines and signs elsewhere. Basically, the exact same things that were in play for the Blue Jays are present for the Padres -- plus, the club holds that 2015 option if he's injured for the majority of the year. It's hard to think the Padres would want him back if he failed to make seven starts, but it's a club option and isn't a bad thing to stuff in the back of their pockets.
While Johnson's stock will plummet with another injury-plagued season next year, he'll still be viewed as a bounce back candidate in some circles at 30 years old. Remember, prior to the 2013 season, a healthy Johnson was considered one of the top pitchers in the game.
Johnson is a potentially star-level commodity and the Padres are paying him around the same money next season that Toronto will pay Ricky Romero to sit in the minors. Put another way, the AAV of Jason Vargas' recently signed four-year deal with the Royals is the same as Johnson's base salary in 2014 and he doesn't have nearly the upside that Johnson has, to put it lightly.
There is nothing to dislike about this deal from San Diego's end -- there is little risk with a potential for major reward. And if Johnson pitches like he has for the majority of his career, the deal will be the biggest bargain of the offseason.