Is it worth the Pirates’ while to go after starting pitcher, Josh Johnson?

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By John Toperzer

First, it was the Royals said to be interested in Josh Johnson. More recently, writer Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle tweeted that Mr. Johnson prefers San Diego or San Francisco — and that was before Tim Hudson signed with the Giants.

Mr. Schulman tweeted the following.

“Industry sources tell me FA starter Josh Johnson let the #sfgiants and #padres know early on they were his first choice, close to Vegas home.”

Andrew Stoeten of The Score in Toronto, believes the righty is looking for a more favourable pitching environment in 2014 before signing a big payday thereafter.

Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Travis Sawchik reported that the Pirates on the short list of teams Johnson has interest in.

“The Pirates are on his short list of teams he’s interested in,” Matt Sosnick, Johnson’s agent told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “He’s made it clear to three or four teams that they would be his top choices. …. The Pirates are one of the teams he wants to consider at the end.”

One thing is for sure: Johnson isn’t going to sign an incentive laden deal like Francisco Liriano did last winter. Johnson, whose agent said he would be looking for $10 million-plus (as reported in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review link), has multiple teams publicly stating their interest in him. There’s also a chance that Sosnick could simply be including Pittsburgh in the so-called “short list” to drive up the numbers for Johnson, as agents commonly do with their free agent clients.

From an on-field vantage point, Johnson couldn’t have had a worse season — at least for old-school baseball people. He put up a 2-8 record with a 6.20 ERA, allowing 105 hits in 81.1 innings. Twenty years ago, Johnson would be lucky to get little more than a non-roster invite to spring training.

Things have changed.

First off, baseball is flush with cash.

Second, some of his 2013 numbers are respectable. He averaged 92.9 mph on all types of fastball, down from 2009’s 94.9 average velocity, but still decent. Plenty of Johnson’s plate discipline numbers aren’t far off from his career norms, as seen at FanGraphs. An 80:33 BB:K ratio isn’t bad.

Speaking on MLB Network’s “Hot Stove” Tuesday, Toronto teammate Mike DeRosa said that was extremely unlucky in 2013. DeRosa noted that Johnson still features a put-away slider and throws hard enough to get batters out. He thought that the pitcher may have been tipping pitches. DeRosa believes Johnson showed the ball to early to batters and needed better deception. The utility infielder added that if Johnson corrects his mechanical issues, he’ll be a nice find for his new team.

Along those lines, Jason Collette at FanGraphs said Johnson struggled pitching out of the stretch.

“When Johnson worked out of the stretch in 2013 and was behind in the count, he threw fastballs 71% of the time, compared to just 46% when he was ahead in the count. The fact Johnson had to use a pitch that he couldn’t command so frequently throughout the season helped lead to the forgettable final numbers he posted.”

Johnson did struggle in a number of important areas. His batter’s line drive rate was a career-high 24.2 percent. Andrew McCutchen, by comparison, compiled a 24.5 line drive rate and won the NL MVP. Johnson’s home run-to-fly ball rate was 18.5 percent. He never finished with a rate over nine percent before 2013.

It’s difficult to say whether the statement Johnson’s agent made inspires confidence or throws up a red flag.

“We’ve had a bunch of teams that have requested his medicals because of last year,” Sosnick said. “He’s sorting through his choices. He’s in a good spot because of the money he has made in his career and given the fact that this is a rebuilding year.”

Is Johnson hungry? Will he put together a big year in order to secure a long-term deal?

He’s no longer the pitcher he was in 2009. Moving to the National League can only be a good thing. Johnson didn’t just have an off-year in 2013, he hasn’t pitched well since 2010. What are the chances he gets hurt again in 2014?

As with most players, there’s a decent amount of risk in signing Johnson. If it’s true that he ends up getting north of $10 million, the Pirates might be wise to pass. The team has other needs, such as first base. While it’s true that a team can never have enough pitching, that statement is often played out because of injuries to the pitching staff.

Johnson has had one healthy season out of his last three. He could have a great year in 2014, but for the expected cost, he just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to the Pirates. If the Bucs want a cheap reclamation project, then they might be better off checking in on Shaun Marcum, who says he’s finally healthy.

**********

Treasure Life!
JT
@JohnToperzer
@PiratesTalk

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