Is Josh Johnson the Next Reclamation Project?
In 2012, the Cleveland Indians’ rotation ranked 28th in all of Major League Baseball with a collective 5.25 ERA, besting only the Twins and Rockies (in that order). Although that number represented down seasons from rotation anchors Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez, it seemed obvious that the Indians needed improvement from their rotation to contend in 2013.
After unearthing Scott Kazmir from the baseball underworld and seeing bounceback seasons from Masterson and Jimenez (as well as huge progress by Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister and an impressive few starts from Danny Salazar), the Indians ranked 14th in the majors with a 3.92 ERA from their rotation. It’s clear that the improvements of the starting five played no small part in the Indians’ 24-win increase from 2012 to 2013.
However, both Jimenez and Kazmir are currently free agents, and while most Indians fans would like to see one or both of them return, the chances of that seem to diminish by the day. As a result, the Indians will essentially need to replace the 340 2/3 innings that Jimenez and Kazmir provided for the Tribe in 2013. The team has a few internal candidates to potentially fill these rotation spots, but arms from outside the organization will certainly be considered as well.
This offseason at Wahoo’s on First, we’ve been discussing a variety of potential offseason targets for the Indians (we’ve also profiled Phil Hughes and Jeff Baker). They’ve been grouped into three categories based on the expected market for their services (and, as far as I know, not at all on their appearance): the Sexy List (free agents with high price tags who probably won’t be joining the Indians), the Ruggedly Handsome List (quality players who are in demand, but who the Indians could lure to Cleveland), and the Ugly List (players with noticeable flaws and who can be found in the “bargain bin”). Up next in the series is former Marlins and Blue Jays right-hander Josh Johnson.
Free Agent List: Ruggedly Handsome (I mean, just look at him.)
2013 Salary and Contract Status: As many of you remember, Josh Johnson was part of the blockbuster deal between the Marlins and Blue Jays last offseason that involved a total of 12 players.
The deal sent Johnson, Jose Reyes, starter Mark Buehrle, catcher John Buck, and utility man Emilio Bonifacio (who was later traded to the Royals) from the Marlins to the Blue Jays in exchange for shortstop Yunel Escobar (who was soon flipped to the Rays), shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, starter Henderson Alvarez, catcher Jeff Mathis, and minor leaguers Justin Nicolino, Anthony DeSclafani and Jake Marisnick.
After compiling a 3.15 ERA in parts of 8 seasons with the Marlins, Johnson struggled to the tune of a 6.20 ERA in 16 starts during his lone season north of the border. Johnson is testing the free agent market for the first time this offseason, and is an interesting name to keep an eye on despite his struggles in 2013.
Past Three Seasons: Josh Johnson was drafted in the 4th round of the 2002 draft by the Marlins (ironically, just two picks after Jeff Baker, who I recently profiled). When healthy, Johnson has shown what it takes to be a top-notch starter in the major leagues.
However, durability has been an issue for him. After a dominant beginning of the season that saw him post a 1.64 ERA through 9 starts (covering 60 1/3 innings) in 2011, Johnson suffered an injury and was lost for the rest of the season. He returned in 2012 to throw 191 1/3 innings while posting a 3.81 ERA, but his peripheral stats were worse than they had been the previous few seasons and he didn’t appear to be the same dominant pitcher that he had been in the years prior.
After jumping to the American League in 2013, Johnson struggled mightily with the Blue Jays. However, his strikeout rate actually increased from 7.8 K/9 in 2012 to 9.2 K/9 in 2013, though his walk rate jumped slightly as well.
Johnson’s struggles with the Blue Jays can be traced back to one area in particular: the home run. After posting a HR/9 rate of 0.6 while with the Marlins, it spiked to 1.7 last season. That’s a mammoth number, though it should normalize in 2014. The league average home run to fly ball ratio is 10.5%, but Johnson’s was an astonishing 18.5% (which is over 10% higher than his career average, and will be hard to duplicate).
Johnson was also harmed by an abnormally high .356 BABIP, which suggests that he didn’t have the best of luck last season, either. Furthermore, advanced metrics suggest that Johnson wasn’t nearly as bad in 2013 as his ERA suggests that he was. He posted a FIP of 4.62, which still isn’t great, but is still a drastic improvement over his actual ERA. His xFIP (which predicts a pitcher’s ERA if 10.5% of fly balls are home runs) was 3.58, which is more indicative of the pitcher that Johnson actually is.
Why Cleveland? First of all, Josh Johnson is a living, breathing human with the ability to throw a baseball. That’s a good start. Taking Johnson out of such a hitter-friendly ballpark would also be extremely beneficial to him. Although Progressive Field isn’t by any means a pitcher’s park, it ranked 12th in home runs allowed in 2013, while Toronto’s Rogers Centre ranked 3rd.
It’s not completely clear if Johnson will be able to replicate the numbers he posted with the Marlins (while in the confines of a pitcher-friendly ballpark) if he were to again pitch in a hitter-friendly ballpark like in Toronto, but his numbers suggest that he is more than capable of doing so. And while Johnson’s numbers from his first season in the American League weren’t too pretty, another year in the junior circuit should result in better numbers.
Johnson would be a very good replacement in the rotation for Ubaldo Jimenez, and could potentially fit into the Indians’ budget as well. There was a time when Johnson was known as one of the better pitchers in baseball, and while he likely won’t return to being that pitcher, taking a chance on him should be well worth the risk as long as he can stay healthy.
Signing with the Indians could be good for Johnson as well, especially considering the magic act that pitching coach Mickey Callaway seemed to perform on the starting rotation in his first season on the job.
Expected Contract: Coming off of a rough season in 2013, Josh Johnson will likely look to sign a one-year contract to regain value so that he can sign a larger contract next year. That, along with the fact that the Blue Jays declined to make him a qualifying offer (meaning that the team that signs him doesn’t need to forfeit a draft pick), should give Johnson a long line of suitors.
I still think that Johnson will sign a one-year deal, likely for around $10-12 million or so, depending on the teams that pursue him. Tim Dierkes of MLBTradeRumors predicted that Johnson will sign a one-year, $8 million deal with $4-6 million in incentives, so at least there’s some agreement with my prediction. A one-year deal doesn’t have nearly the risk that a multiyear deal has, so the potential for success should far outweigh the risk for a team like the Indians to pull the trigger.
Signing Johnson would put the Indians near their budget for 2014, but the team’s ownership showed last year that it is willing to spend money for the right move (or moves, in the case of last offseason). In addition, he also comes with a much better track record than fellow free agent Ervin Santana, who is seeking over $100 million. I’d rather take my chances with Johnson.
Josh Johnson has shown the ability to be a dominant starter in the major leagues. If the Indians are able to get him, they would be buying low on a great, affordable talent, and would make what could turn out to be one of the best moves of the offseason.
Who wouldn’t want to take that risk?