Toronto Blue Jays: Lessons from the Josh Johnson Experiment


Toronto Blue Jays: Lessons from the Josh Johnson Experiment

The Toronto Blue Jays found themselves in a difficult position when it came to Josh Johnson last off-season.

On the one hand, they spent heavily to acquire his services for the 2013 campaign and while things didn’t work out as planned during his first season in Toronto, there was always the uneasy possibility that Johnson could turn things around in 2014.

Jun 17, 2013; Toronto, ON, Canada; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Josh Johnson (55) delivers a pitch against the Colorado Rockies at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Notwithstanding his penchant for injuries, Johnson was once an elite pitcher in the National League for the Miami Marlins – the exact type of pitcher the Jays have lacked since the departure of Roy Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2010. It would’ve been a real shame to see the Jays pass on him and another team benefit from his sudden resurgence.

In other words, there was pride and “potential” pushing the Jays to re-sign Johnson.

Against these two motivating factors, the Jays had to consider the hefty price tag associated with Johnson – a qualifying offer in the $14 million range based on free agency rules was the basic assumption here – and his generally poor health. Johnson has only reached the 200-inning club once in his MLB career so it’d be hard to justify spending front-of-the-starting-rotation money on a guy who can’t guarantee 25-30 starts.

A final disincentive concerned Johnson’s “potential” – at some point, the potential ends and you simply have the player before you. His actual performance, not the potential performance he commands in the minds of analysts, is what matters at this point.

It wasn’t any easy decision either way for the Jays – there were legitimate arguments both for and against re-signing him – but they ultimately chose to pull the plug on the Johnson experiment after just one season. In retrospect, they made the right decision.

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The big lefty signed a one-year deal with the San Diego Padres in the off-season worth $8 million after no one else showed real interest in him. Under the terms of the deal, Johnson would receive an additional $1.25 million if he could reach the 26-start mark. Right off the bat, the Jays saved money by not qualifying him for nearly twice the price of his eventual base salary with San Diego.

Here’s the kicker, however: Johnson hasn’t pitched in a single game this season. He’s remained on the sidelines since late March, recovering from Tommy John surgery. This means the Jays avoided both a hefty price tag for Johnson and another season of frustration by declining to re-sign him. Looking back, it was actually a pretty simple decision.

Jul 12, 2014; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Brandon Morrow (23) in the dugout against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to Brandon Morrow and Casey Janssen – two pitchers who’re eligible to hit free agency this off-season – the Jays shouldn’t be shy of putting the lessons they learned from the Johnson experiment into practice.

In terms of comparison, Johnson and Morrow could easily be mistaken for the same pitcher. They’re both hard-throwing strike out machines defined by “potential” and hefty price tags. Both have trouble avoiding the infirmary, too, which limits their overall value. The Jays have more reliable internal options in Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison and Aaron Sanchez than Morrow.

There maybe some lingering health concerns attached to Hutchison, but I believe we’ve already seen enough from these three young pitchers to say they’re credible replacements for Morrow in either a bullpen or starting rotation capacity. They’ll cost less money to keep over the short term and arguably over the long term as well; they boast a lot of “potential” themselves; and they’ve been healthy all year.

If Morrow stays in the lineup, the Jays risk taking a spot away from one of these young arms and that’d be a greater shame than letting Morrow walk and rediscover him form somewhere else.

To put things in slightly different terms, I’m ready to call bust on Morrow’s “potential” and I hope the Jays have come to the same conclusion. The guy can’t stay healthy, which has greatly limited his value. Here it’s important to add that Johnson’s departure created a spot in the starting rotation for Hutchison and Stroman got his first taste of MLB action in early May when Morrow went down with a finger injury. Of these four pitchers, ask yourself: are the Jays better with Johnson and Morrow in the lineup or Hutchison and Stroman?

Sep 7, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Casey Janssen (44) pitches during the ninth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

On the other hand, when it comes to Janssen, it’s this last point about space in the lineup that bears the most relevance. Janssen is an unnatural closer – his stuff isn’t impressive or pretty, but he induces a lot of outs – whereas Sanchez has all the makings of a classic closer. He’s big, tosses fire down the plate and has a collection of pitches that can get the job done.

In this case, the decision to let Janssen walk has less to do with his stuff than the idea of holding Sanchez back. The Jays would save money in this scenario, too, but they’d also get a better taste of Sanchez’s “potential” and aid in his development as a pitcher at the major league level.

Sep 12, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher J.A. Happ (48) fields a ball hit by Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Ben Zobrist (not pictured) in the sixth inning at Rogers Centre. Tampa Bay defeated Toronto 1-0. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto needs to make a decision regarding the future of J.A. Happ as well. He might be the right arm to keep in the lineup given his lower price tag than Morrow and the extra weight he can carry in either the bullpen or the starting rotation. It’s this versatility that distinguishes him from Morrow and Janssen.

(Janssen can also start, but do you really want him out there for 5-6 innings at a time?)

Alternatively, if the Jays decide to employ Sanchez as a starter, then both Morrow and Happ might find themselves pitching elsewhere next season. It really comes down to what role best suits Sanchez and where he can make the biggest impact for the Jays right now.

What are your thoughts? Should the Jays re-sign Morrow and Janssen? Should they keep both or let one walk? What about Happ? Can we realistically bank on Stroman, Hutchison and Sanchez to pick up the slack?

Let us know what you think in the comments section below.