11/20/2013 12:44 P.M. ET
Signing Johnson worth the risk for Padres
Injury-plagued right-hander has potential to bounce back in favorable ballpark
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
Make magic with a baseball coming out of your hand at some point in your life and somebody will always believe, which is why the market for Josh Johnson developed swiftly and richly, in spite of his recent injuries and ineffectiveness.
In the end, Johnson is taking a chance on a Padres team that is, in turn, taking a chance on him. Johnson's one-year, $8 million pact with the Pads, which was expected to be announced Wednesday, is cohabitation based on rehabilitation, and both sides could stand to benefit considerably from the arrangement.
For Johnson, San Diego is not simply a beautiful place to live and work; it's a premier place to pitch.
Oh, sure, they rearranged the walls a year ago in an effort to make Petco Park less of a pitcher's paradise, but it still proved to be the most stingy run-scoring environment in the game in 2013, and Johnson, who will also benefit from a heavy dose of road games in Dodger Stadium and AT&T Park, could not have picked a better arrangement to rebuild his value. He's not in the American League East anymore.
The Padres stand to reap great value from this arrangement, too. Frankly, in this environment, an $8 million investment is a pittance for a mid-rotation starting pitcher, and Johnson, assuming he's able to take the mound every fifth day, has the possibility to profile as at least that. The guy is 29 years old and three years removed from posting an adjusted ERA 80 percent better than the league average. That was with the Marlins in 2010, when he finished fifth in the National League Cy Young Award vote.
If he makes 26 starts in 2014, Johnson's salary will bump up to $9.25 million, which, when taken in the context of the $13 million gamble the Nationals took on Dan Haren a year ago, is still a bargain. With all the money floating around the game this winter, Johnson probably could have commanded the Ben Sheets Special -- a $10 million guarantee -- but he gave San Diego a sizable discount.
That's the good. The bad is that three years is an eternity in the scheme of sport, and Johnson has been dutifully checking off just about every frustrating physical setback that can occur when you throw a baseball 60 feet, 6 inches for a living. He's had Tommy John surgery. He had a season end with shoulder inflammation (that's the scary one). He just recently had bone spurs removed from his throwing elbow. He is a risk among risks, but the magic he's made means his market was still an active one in which the Pirates and Giants, among others, participated.
The Padres pounced, and it was a good, aggressive approach by a team that, like Johnson, could be well worth watching if health cooperates.
In terms of pure bodies, San Diego didn't necessarily need a starter, but that's like saying you don't necessarily need car insurance. The day the need arises is the day you want to be prepared, and Johnson pads a Padres rotation loaded with both upside and uncertainty.
In the strides made by young power pitchers Andrew Cashner (3.09 ERA, 111 ERA+, 1.131 WHIP) and Tyson Ross (3.17, 108, 1.152), Padres executive vice president and general manager Josh Byrnes could look past the grim detail that his club had one of the worst ballpark-adjusted ERAs in baseball last season and see the seeds of a strong starting five. Byrnes made a buy-low midseason swap for Ian Kennedy that is also worth monitoring as a stealth improvement.
With Joe Wieland and Cory Luebke returning from Tommy John surgery, the Padres knew they had reserves on the horizon. With the left-handed Eric Stults having posted a 3.93 ERA and a 3.28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 33 starts, they knew they had a veteran worth keeping in the rotation picture. In lefty Robbie Erlin and Burch Smith, they have young arms that intrigue.
But nothing in that back end is a bankable commodity. Neither is Johnson, of course, but the optimism that accompanies his arrival could be enough to prompt San Diego to explore the trade market for its surplus starting supply. It is, after all, the greatest commodity in the game, and the Padres can use it in their ongoing search for a bat to augment an offense that could be better than we've been led to believe. It would seem they are better off dangling a starter than they are dangling third baseman Chase Headley, whose true value is difficult to assess after a down season impacted by a Spring Training thumb injury.
Injuries and absences have ravaged the roster the past two years, and that serves to make San Diego and Johnson kindred spirits. Yasmani Grandal and Everth Cabrera each served a 50-game suspension in 2013. Yonder Alonso and Carlos Quentin each played fewer than 100 games. Cameron Maybin played 14.
If Johnson stays healthy, he has the raw talent to be a premier pitcher, particularly in the fruitful NL and the forgiving Petco Park.
If the Padres stay healthy, they have the makings of an NL West upstart.
Two big "ifs," two big upsides. Sounds like a match as heavenly as the San Diego weather.