Why the Mets should sit out the Josh Johnson sweepstakes

Josh JohnsonLast week I wrote about how the Mets should avoid going after injury-reclamation guys like they have previously chased during Sandy Alderson’s tenure. So of course the Josh Johnson bandwagon started up. Here’s how MetsBlog, reacting to a post on MLBTradeRumors, summed up the case for signing Johnson:

”In other words, he reads like the quintessential Sandy Alderson free-agent signing, along the lines of a Shaun Marcum, but better. He’s a total reclamation project with good underpinnings, who will likely be attracted to the Mets because he knows the division and it’s a good place to rebuild his value.”

Actually, the original piece is well worth reading. While Johnson had two separate DL stints last year, here’s his previous injury history:

”Johnson is a starting pitcher who tossed fewer than 1,000 innings over an eight-year span, as he’s been injured a ton. In 2006, his first full season, he was done on September 12th due to a forearm strain. He began the ’07 season on the DL with ulnar nerve irritation in his right biceps. After beginning his season in June of that year, he made four starts before going under the knife for Tommy John surgery in August. His recovery was short, as he was back on a Major League mound in less than a year.

Johnson was injury-free in ’09, and signed a four-year extension after that season. Though he technically avoided the DL in his fantastic 2010 campaign, his last start came on September 4th due to shoulder inflammation and a back strain. He hit the DL with shoulder inflammation in May 2011, and wasn’t able to return from the injury that year, finishing with only nine starts. The mostly-healthy 2009-10 seasons showed Johnson bounced back well from Tommy John surgery, but ’11 reintroduced the idea that he was injury-prone. He bounced back in 2012, avoiding the DL and making 31 starts. Johnson didn’t pitch at his previous ace level, but he re-established enough hope to be a major part of the November blockbuster with Toronto.”

In parts of nine seasons in the majors, Johnson has made 30 or more starts in a season twice. Here’s his games started list, going from best to worst:

33, 31, 28, 24, 16, 14, 9, 4, 1

So, he stunk last year – 6.20 ERA, 1.660 WHIP – and had two DL trips, to boot. But because he throws hard and was good three years ago, the Mets should consider giving him $8 million next year? Good grief has common sense just completely gone out the window?

Proponents of signing Johnson will point out how he had a career-high 9.18 K/9, which helped him to a very strong 3.58 xFIP. A move away from the homer-happy Rogers Centre could be all that Johnson needs to be once again a solid contributor, the logic goes.

It’s a good story and one I might buy at a 2013 Marcum price. But to pay twice as much guaranteed, along with any incentives that would go along with it? It just seems like way too much money combined with way too much risk. The team that signs that contract is banking on good health, regression and no further erosion of his skills. Could it work out? Sure, but any team watching its pennies would be best served by looking elsewhere.

At his 2009-10 peak, Johnson averaged a 3.56 K/BB ratio and 94.8 mph with his fastball. Last year, even with the personal-best K/9 rate, Johnson posted a 2.77 K/BB and averaged 92.9 with his fastball. For most pitchers, those would be great numbers. But when you’re used to being able to dial your fastball up to 98+, like Johnson did in his heyday, and now you top out at under 95, well, that’s just a huge difference.

We’ve seen former ace pitchers still put up good strikeout numbers but because they didn’t have that sixth gear that they once did, their overall results were not good. The first guy to jump to mind is Roy Oswalt. The past two years, Oswalt has averaged a 9.2 K/9 rate. He also has a 6.80 ERA and 1.620 WHIP in that span. Oswalt suffered a velocity drop from 92.6 in 2010 to 90.9 last year.

Josh Beckett had an 8.43 K/9 in 2009 when he posted a 5.2 fWAR. Last year he had an 8.52 K/9 but a 5.19 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP. In 2009, he averaged 94.3 with his fastball and last year he saw a 92.0 average velocity.

In Mets’ history, Dwight Gooden had an 8.7 K/9 in his last year with the club, the same rate he put up in his magical 1985 season, and tied for the second-best mark of his career. He also had a 6.31 ERA and a 1.476 WHIP in 1994. While velocity readings are not readily available for Gooden’s time, anyone who thinks he was throwing as hard in ’94 as he was earlier in his career is simply mistaken.

Strikeouts are a great thing and one indication of a pitcher’s stuff. But they are not the only thing that matters and in the case of former ace hurlers with declining stuff, perhaps they cloud the issue as much as anything else.

As for Johnson, no doubt some team is going to be seduced by his still-strong velocity and impressive K/9 rates and I fully expect him to get a one-year deal at a healthy salary given his 2012 numbers. I just hope it’s not the Mets. If you want to pull for an injury-prone guy coming off non-TJ elbow surgery, you can root for Jenrry Mejia, instead. At least he had good results while healthy in 2013.

11 comments for “Why the Mets should sit out the Josh Johnson sweepstakes

  1. October 16, 2013 at 10:44 am

    As a Braves fan I hope the Met’s squander millions on this plug. Only so he can be out of the rotation by the first weekend of May.

    This article should be shown to all the MLB to dissuade them from signing him to anything more than a one year $1 million (incentive loaded- like start 5 games actually get paid would be a good incentive).

  2. AV
    October 16, 2013 at 10:54 am

    The Blue Jays pitcher I’m curious about is Ricky Romero. Toronto removed him from their 40-man roster last week. I’d be interested in seeing if he can figure it out with a change of scenery. He’s a hard-throwing lefty that’s only 28 years old. The Jays must really be down on him to remove him from their 40-man considering pitching is one of their biggest issues outside of Dickey and Buehrle.

    • October 16, 2013 at 11:05 am

      In 2012, Romero had a 5.22 BB/9 in the majors and last year he had a 5.0 BB/9 in the minors. You can’t succeed allowing that many walks. And Toronto gets to pay him $15 million over the next two years and a buyout the following year.

  3. October 16, 2013 at 11:13 am

    Team Josh Johnson. (Though obviously I’d aim for as low a base as possible, maybe something in $6M territory, if we’re being realistic. Also obviously contingent on his medicals passing muster.)

  4. October 16, 2013 at 11:47 am

    Someone’s going to be foolish and throw a bunch of money at him. Let them.
    The only way I want to see him in Queens is with the visiting team, or as an unrealistically cheap member of the bullpen.

  5. blastingzone
    October 16, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    Just say NO to Johnson and Santana! Sign Scott Kazmir and invite Dice K and Harang(pick up the option on Harang) to spring traing and along with Mejia will give you three pitchers to
    compete for the 5th spot in the rotation! The 4th spot will be Kazmirs to lose and if Mejia’s healthy he should win the 5th spot? When Kazmir pitched against the mets this year Howie Rose couldn’t stop raving about him the whole game and he will cost the mets a lot less than Arroyo!!

  6. Jerry Grote
    October 16, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    I would think his “new” established value is pretty close to what we’ve seen in the last three years of 333 innings; roughly an ERA+ of 101 (bb-ref). Unlike Brian, I’m not terribly concerned about his ability to pitch in September.

    The Mets need roughly 100-120 innings that will end roughly in August. Which is why the Mets, among all teams, makes Josh Johnson the most natural team for him. We already have his replacement lined up – twice over.

    • October 16, 2013 at 1:55 pm

      In 2011, Johnson got injured in May and missed the rest of the season. Last year he got injured in April and missed six weeks and then got injured again in August and missed the rest of the year.

      You just can’t assume he’s going to be healthy from April to August.

  7. Robby
    October 16, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    All reward low risk. If the price is right why not. How many of us said a few years back Who is RA Dickey? Look at Al Leither too. He couldn’t stay healthy till he was 27-28. These types of guys are rolls of the dice of the price is reasonable.

  8. Name
    October 16, 2013 at 4:59 pm

    It all comes down to the price with Johnson. Obviously at $8 million guaranteed (and who knows what Johnson reps are really asking now), it’s too much for the Mets to get in on.

    My offensive expectation is Choo at 18-19, Yunel Escobar at 5, so that leaves enough room for Johnson at 5+incentives. (ike davis is dumped/traded to make more room to sign some cheap FA’s in this scenario)

  9. Metsense
    October 16, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    Why sit out ? Niese, Wheeler, Gee, Mejia, Torres, Montero, deGrom, Gorski and Syndergaard.
    Spend the money on the Offense.

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