2014 MLB Free Agent Profile: Josh Johnson

Jonathan Moore

An extensive injury history and poor year could make Josh Johnson a desirable high-risk, high-reward signing.

Few free agent pitchers offer as much potential risk and reward as Josh Johnson. The former Marlins ace is coming off of another injury-shortened season, and required minor elbow surgery to remove bone spurs before heading into his first offseason as a free agent.

In what could be his only year with the Blue Jays, Johnson had problems other than his health in 2013. For the first time in his major league career, Johnson was a bad pitcher—at least according to some of his statistics.

The talented righty posted a career worst 6.20 ERA during a miserable year in Canada and, combined with a decorated injury history, should expect to make far less than his talent would otherwise dictate. However, general managers might be changing their stance on ERA, and the Tim Lincecum contract could show that they are willing to pay more for peripheral stats and less for ERA and won-lost record.

That's good news for Johnson, as his peripherals were similar to his career norms. He posted a career-high 9.18 strikeouts per nine innings and a slightly below-league-average 3.32 walks per nine innings in the tough AL East. Johnson’s 4.62 FIP and 3.58 xFIP might serve as better indicators of his true talent. The sample is small—only 81 innings—but this seems to suggest he deserved a fate much closer to his career 3.40 ERA.

Johnson’s ugly ERA might be due to a .356 BABIP that was far higher than his career mark of .302, and an inflated home-run-per-fly-ball rate of 18.5 compared to 8.2 for his career. Both of those numbers should regress toward his career numbers, but his injury risk and difficulty pitching with men on base (opponents hit .392/.446/.608 with Johnson pitching from the stretch) could raise enough red flags that all GMs might shy away from.

The Cost

Johnson’s talent will be coveted in a free agent market that lacks impact starting pitching, but his injury history and recent struggles will not be ignored. If Johnson doesn’t see a multi-year offer he likes, he could opt to do what Dan Haren did last year and take a reasonably priced one-year deal to re-establish his value.

The Jays will most likely not offer Johnson a qualifying offer, because he is probably not worth the guaranteed $14.1 million next year and because he would most likely accept the offer.

The lack of a draft pick tied to Johnson, typically a good thing for would-be suitors, could mean more teams for the Mets to compete with and will only serve to drive up his price. The Fangraphs community has him looking at a two-year, $19.9 million dollar deal. If he wants a one-year contract, Johnson could expect an offer similar to what Haren got last year (one year, $13 million), although with a much lower base salary and the difference made up in incentives.

The Fit

The Mets have at least one large hole in their rotation with the absence of Matt Harvey. Johnson has the potential to fill that hole as well as any other free agent pitcher, and the risk he carries could make him a bargain on a one-year deal. A two-year deal wouldn’t kill the franchise, but with promising starters in the minor league pipeline, Sandy Alderson might instead choose to look for a cheaper, safer veteran to ensure he at least gets his money’s worth in playing time.

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