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Why Josh Johnson Will Be the Steal of MLB's 2014 Free-Agent Class

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Why Josh Johnson Will Be the Steal of MLB's 2014 Free-Agent Class
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The dream of what a baseball player can be often gets in the way of what he actually is. You see a set of skills and body type that screams Major League Baseball superstar, but the pieces don't always add up. 

This brings me to the free agency of right-handed starting pitcher Josh Johnson. He is coming off the worst year of his career in 2013, underwent elbow surgery to remove bone spurs on October 1 and faces endless questions about whether he can fulfill his destiny as a true No. 1 starter.

Despite those questions, there are going to be a number of suitors for Johnson's services this winter, even after a season where he allowed 105 hits with 15 home runs and a 6.20 ERA in 81.1 innings, because the potential is still there. 

Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com (Insider subscription required) spoke with Johnson's agent, Matt Sosnick, who said he's "received calls from more than half the teams in Major League Baseball" about his client. 

Why should teams be so excited about the possibility of approaching Johnson as he tries to recover from another injury? Take a look at his number of games started and innings pitched throughout his career:

Josh Johnson Season-by-Season Stats
Season G (GS) IP
2006 31 (24) 157.0
2007 4 (4) 15.2
2008 14 (14) 87.1
2009 33 (33) 209.0
2010 28 (28) 183.2
2011 9 (9) 60.1
2012 31 (31) 191.1
2013 16 (16) 81.1

Baseball Reference

We have an eight-year sample by which to judge Johnson, more than enough time to formulate an opinion of him. Only once has he broken the 200-inning barrier and twice thrown over 180 innings. He's the definition of an injury-prone, unreliable starting pitcher. 

If his agent is to be believed, Johnson has generated some level of interest from at least 15 teams despite the injury problems, and it's not difficult to understand why. 

Johnson needing elbow surgery is great news for teams around the league thinking about signing him. 

If you watched Johnson pitch at all last year, he wasn't healthy dating all the way back to spring training. His velocity started off low (by his standards), but got better after he missed all of May, before bottoming out in August when he got shut down after just two starts.

Josh Johnson Month-by-Month Fastball Velocity
Month Velocity (MPH)
April 92.6
June 92.8
July 93.0
August 92.2

Fangraphs

Without an injury to explain Johnson's decrease in velocity, you would think this was the beginning of the end. Now, however, teams have evidence to explain what went wrong for him and will be able to have their doctors examine him to prove his rehab is going well. 

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Having an injury isn't exactly a good thing, but if it can be used to help explain a decline in performance and/or velocity, teams are always going to be optimistic about a potential bounce-back season. 

Two huge reasons to love Johnson as a free agent this offseason are his age and, as scary as it is to think about, his upside. 

Johnson has pitched in the big leagues for eight years, but doesn't turn 30 until January 31. He's one week younger than Scott Kazmir, whose career looked finished two years ago. Now, following a solid season with Cleveland, the left-hander could reasonably expect a guaranteed two-year deal this offseason. 

As far as upside, look at the starting pitchers available this winter. Names like Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ricky Nolasco will likely receive four- or five-year offers worth $10-15 million per season, but do you trust any of them to live up to their contracts?

Let's look at Johnson's performance since 2010 compared to those big-name free-agent pitchers:

Pitching Stats from 2010-13
Player IP ERA K-BB AVG HR WAR
Johnson 516.2 3.40 490-163 .241 38 11.8
Jimenez 769.1 4.00 731-345 .240 68 13.1
Garza 661.2 3.71 579-200 .243 77 9.9
Santana 840.1 3.87 641-257 .242 118 6.5

Fangraphs

The sample size is smaller, but Johnson boasts the lowest ERA, home-run rate and best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the group. He also has the second-highest WAR despite throwing 145 fewer innings than Garza.

Johnson, when healthy, is superior to any of those pitchers. He has 915 strikeouts against 338 walks, a 3.40 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 998 career innings. He once led the NL in ERA (2010) and has a top-five Cy Young finish on his resume. 

The market for starting pitchers has gotten so out of control in the last few years that a No. 3 starter (Ervin Santana) can get $15 million per year from some team foolish and desperate enough to pay it. 

Unfortunately there aren't many teams out there capable of affording that price, so they have to bargain-hunt. Small-market contenders like Baltimore, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Pittsburgh make a lot of sense as potential destinations for Johnson. 

Given his health problems and inconsistent performance, Johnson can't ask for anything more than a one-year, incentive-laden deal to rebuild his value and test the market again next year. 

If I told you that your favorite team could sign Johnson for, say, one year and $4 million with incentives or Jimenez for five years at $70 million, which one are you taking?

Of course, Johnson's agent seems to be under the impression that his client will get more than the offer I put out there (via Mike Berardino, St. Paul Pioneer Press):

If he doesn't get a qualifying offer from Toronto, I would expect Josh gets somewhere around what the qualifying offer is. I think he's probably going to be the most approached free-agent pitcher out there.

Via MLB Advanced Media

Even though Johnson will probably get overwhelming support in the scenario I mentioned based on length of investment, it is also an acknowledgement that some part of you thinks the No. 1 starter from his days with the Marlins is still in there. 

If he gets a contract anywhere near what a $14.1 million qualifying offer from Toronto would have paid him, I would be shocked. It could happen with a low base salary and a ton of performance-based incentives, but a team would be insane to guarantee him that in a one- or two-year contract. 

Johnson is just one year removed from being worth 3.5 Fangraphs' wins above replacement, better than any single-season total for Jimenez dating back to 2011. 

Another benefit to getting Johnson, as opposed to Jimenez or Santana, is that no draft-pick compensation is attached. Teams are being more conscientious of signing free agents because the loss of a pick means less slot money to spend on the draft. 

I am more than willing to admit that Johnson could sign a contract in January, hurt his elbow in spring training and not pitch a game in 2014. That would fit the downward trajectory of his career, which seems to be built around the theory of "what could have been..."

For all the doubt and headache that comes with Johnson, there is also the chance, however remote, he makes 25 starts with a 3.30 ERA and averages one strikeout per inning. I mean, he was able to strike out 83 over 81.1 innings in the American League East last year with a bad elbow. 

Even though those aren't exactly great numbers for a No. 1 starter, they are for a No. 2 in a market where that kind of pitcher doesn't come cheap. 

Teams always want to find value in the pitching market, especially when it comes to starters. Johnson may never reach the highs he did earlier in his career, but given his age and (likely) low cost, it is hard not to love the value he presents in this market. 

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.

If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter. 

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