MLB Trade Rumors: Could Cliff Lee Signing Make Josh Johnson Available?

Greg Pinto@@Greg_PintoCorrespondent IJanuary 10, 2011

MLB Trade Rumors: Could Cliff Lee Signing Make Josh Johnson Available?

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    The numerous ways that the Philadelphia Phillies are affected by the signing of free agent left hander, Cliff Lee, are well documented.

    In fact, so much has been made about Lee and the rest of the Phillies' rotation has basically overshadowed what the signing means for the rest of the league, and in comparison, the division, outside the fact that many experts believe the Phillies are the favorites to win it. We must also examine, however, the decisions that teams will have to face to react to this signing.

    Three out of the remaining four teams are easy to evaluate. The Atlanta Braves believe that they can compete with the Phillies' rotation, and rightfully so. Outside of a couple of upgrades to their outfield, and maybe the bench, they seem to be settled.

    The New York Mets and Washington Nationals will undergo, or continue, different rebuilding phases. The Mets will attempt to work young talent back on to their roster and receive boosts from returning, injured veterans, and the Nationals will continue to develop their farm system with little output at the Major League level.

    But what about the Florida Marlins?

    The Marlins operate in a unique way. Never completely set into a competitive or rebuilding phase, they are the hardest to predict. On one hand, the Marlins always seem to make a commitment to winning, but on the other, they always seem to make questionable moves by trading away valuable pieces of their Major League roster.

    So where does the Cliff Lee signing leave the Marlins, and more specifically, their most valuable commodity—ace, Josh Johnson?

    The following slideshow will examine some reasons that the Marlins may benefit from moving the face of their rotation, and why the Cliff Lee signing may have forced their hand a bit more than they would have liked.

The Strength of the Phillies' Rotation

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    That title should probably read something more along the lines of The Strength of the Phillies Rotation (Among Other Things), but that isn't as catchy.

    The Phillies will open the season, as of this point in time, with a rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton—by far, the best rotation in baseball.

    Even if the Phillies are expected to move Blanton and his salary by opening day, they have suitable replacements waiting in the wings in right handed pitchers, Kyle Kendrick and Vance Worley. Simply put, the depth of their rotation is unrivaled in baseball.

    Add to that an offense that scuffled in 2010, in large part, thanks to injury, and the Phillies are easily one of the best teams in baseball. According to infamous player agent, Scott Boras, the Phillies have become a "payroll Goliath" as well. Though Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt are technically only under contract past this year (Oswalt has a contractual option for 2012, and Hamels is arbitration eligible), the Phillies could feasibly extend their rotation well past Baseball America's projected 2014 lineup.

    That spells trouble for the rest of the National League East.

    The Marlins will also have to contend with a very tough Atlanta Braves team, who like the Phillies, saw their fair share of injuries in 2010. They added powerful second baseman, Dan Uggla, and signed him to a five year contract extension, upgrading in left field in the process, by moving Martin Prado into the outfield. Though the Braves' offense has some question marks (what team's offense doesn't?), they have certainly improved, and boast a deep rotation to boot.

    Derek Lowe showed a strong resurgence at the end of the 2010 season, and Tim Hudson received a fair amount of votes in the National League Cy Young Award voting. With strong performances from Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrgens and Mike Minor, the Braves could once again challenge for the division title, or at the very least, become early Wild Card favorites.

    In a couple of years from now, the Marlins will face two more tough cookies—the New York Mets, who will have a New York sized payroll when the time is right, and the Washington Nationals, who have developed one of the league's top farm systems (and should continue to do so.)

    The Marlins are stuck in the proverbial "rock and a hard place." The rock is the fact that they aren't willing to spend top dollar on free agents, or expand payroll much beyond it's minuscule limits, and the hard place is that they have never developed great farm systems. Moving forward, they may be able to fix both of those problems by doing what seems to be the unthinkable:

    Trade Josh Johnson, now.

Johnson's Contract

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    All things considered, many teams around baseball (the Marlins included) would love to have Josh Johnson under contract at his current price.

    On January 14, 2010, Johnson signed a four year, $39 million extension with the Florida Marlins. For a pitcher of his caliber, the Marlins got a very team friendly deal.

    The first two years of the contract would buy out Johnson's final arbitration years. In 2010, he earned just $3.75 million, and in his final year of arbitration, is set to earn $7.75 million. The deal also bought out the first two years of Johnson's free agency, and will pay him $13.75 million in each of 2012 and 2013.

    The deal includes performance based incentives that are very reachable for Johnson, including $50,000 for an All-Star appearance, $500,000 for winning the Cy Young Award, and $1 million for winning the World Series MVP Award.

    All things considered, Johnson is a very affordable player.

    His greatest value comes in the fact that he is an elite pitcher with years of control left on his contract at a very reasonable price. Much like when the Philadelphia Phillies acquired Cliff Lee before the July 2009 trade deadline, teams are willing to pay top talent for a pitcher in Johnson's situation.

    Though the Marlins can afford the pitcher, they could trade him and free up that money for a number of different uses, including addressing other areas of need on the roster and spending bigger in the draft, something that would help a low-payroll team like the Marlins to a great extent.

The Injury History: Caution, Concern or an Exaggeration?

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    When the discussion of who the best pitchers in the National League, or in baseball, for that matter, arises, Josh Johnson's name is often included, and rightfully so.

    Since his debut in 2006, the Marlins' ace has posted a record of 45 - 22, with an ERA of just 3.10. He has good control, the ability to strike hitters out and making them miss, and overpowering "stuff."

    However, unlike most people seem to believe, he is far from the "work-horse" type of pitcher that teams like to see out of their staff's ace. Unlike some of the other "aces" of the NL East, like Johan Santana, Roy Halladay and Tim Hudson, Johnson has thrown over 200 innings in a single season just once—209 innings in 2009. In fact, he has thrown just 665 innings over the course of his career.

    So the debate begins—Are his low innings totals a good thing (less mileage on his arm) or a result of a troublesome injury history? A little bit of both may be the right answer.

    Over the course of his young career, Johnson has had his share of injuries. He struggled through the 2007 season with elbow injuries, making just four starts at the Major League level. Finally, on August 3, 2007, he had the infamous Tommy John Surgery to successfully repair his pitching elbow. He made a rather quick recovery, and ended up starting 14 games for the Marlins in 2008, before finally having his first completely full season in 2009.

    He appeared to be on his road to a second straight, healthy season, before he missed the final month of the regular season (plus some) thanks to right shoulder soreness.

    Is Johnson an injury risk? It's tough to say. It is troublesome that the majority of injuries have come to his right arm / shoulder, but teams could take a more optimistic view to the young ace, after all, he is good enough to take a risk for. Teams can also look at Johnson and convince themselves that there is hardly any mileage on his arm. In layman's terms, the best is yet to come.

    The Marlins can look at a trade scenario the same way. On one hand, they are trading a young, stud pitcher for premium talent. They'll be upgrading a weak farm system either way, but moving a pitcher that could be a potential injury risk for an elite talent? It's deals like those that cement a general manager's lore.

Dealing from Depth? Marlins Have a Strong Staff of Their Own

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    If the Marlins have ever been known for one thing, it is the ability to develop big, interesting arms in their farm system, Josh Johnson included.

    Heading into the 2011 season, they've developed a nice starting rotation, featuring the ace, Johnson, a man who once threw a no-hitter, Annibal Sanches, a man who has had great success in the National League in Javier Vasquez, and the newly extended, Ricky Nolasco. Rounding out the rotation, they'll have a number of young arms including Chris Volstad, Alex Sanabia, Adalberto Mendez, and Sean West compete for the fifth starter's spot.

    It wouldn't be ridiculous to see the Marlins deal from a position that they've comfortably grown talented pitchers in the past. Who goes, though?

    Javier Vasquez signed a one year deal with the Marlins this offseason, hoping to rebound in the National League after a terrible stint with the New York Yankees, and citing the team's proximity to his home in Puerto Rico as a reason he signed there. He has a full no-trade clause, and won't be accepting a deal anywhere.

    The Marlins also signed Ricky Nolasco to a three year, $26.5 million extension this offseason, perhaps as insurance should they need to move Johnson. It's safe to assume that Nolasco won't be on the move either.

    The final guaranteed spot in the rotation belongs to Annibal Sanchez, and as the cheapest, most controllable man on that staff, he certainly won't be used in a trade.

    That leaves us with Josh Johnson.

    Having already outlined Johnson's contract, we know that the Marlins will have little to no trouble moving him. With seven talented pitchers ready and able to fill the void that Johnson leaves in the rotation, the Marlins may be wooed enough to move him. He will bring in the largest haul and makes the most money, so if they were going to deal anyone, it would be him.

    It wouldn't be easy for the team, emotionally wise, to move him, but he is the type of pitcher that can bring in the type of haul that changes the direction of a franchise.

Starting Pitching Is in Demand

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    2010 was rightfully called the "Year of the Pitcher," and clearly, teams believe that 2011 will be much of the same. The only problem is that elite pitching just isn't available. When the offseason began, the only "elite" pitchers known to be available were Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke. Having landed in Philadelphia and Milwaukee respectively, the Marlins now hold the game's most valuable trade chip.

    This slide isn't going to have the explanation that the others will, or the statistical information to back it up, but one thing is clear—teams want good pitching, and they'll trade just about anything to get it.

    Going back a few years, take a look at some of the prospects that have been dealt for these "elite" pitchers: Joe Saunders, Patrick Corbin, Rafael Rodriguez, Tyler Skaggs (for Dan Haren), Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Jeremey Jeffress, Jake Odorizzi (for Zack Greinke), Phillipe Aumont, JC Ramirez, Tyson Gillies (for Cliff Lee), Kyle Drabek, Travis D'Arnaud, Michael Taylor (for Roy Halladay), Lou Marson, Jason Donald, Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco (for Cliff Lee), JA Happ, Jonathan Villar, Anthony Gose (for Roy Oswalt), Justin Smoak, Blake Beaven, Matthew Lawson, Josh Leuke (for Cliff Lee), Aaron Poreda, Clayton Richard, Adam Russell, and Dexter Carter (for Jake Peavy).

    So, let's recap. In total, that's 29 of several different organizations' top prospects for just five pitchers, including Cliff Lee a total of three times. That proves just one thing—teams will give up prospects for an elite pitcher like Johnson.

    The question is, where would the Marlins send him?

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

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    Trading the face of your franchise is no simple feat, emotionally and in a baseball sense. Therefore, when a lot of teams are forced with the difficult decision of trading their star players, they often turn to teams outside of their division, first and foremost, but more importantly, outside of their league. If the Marlins were to trade Josh Johnson, the most important thing for them to do would be to find the right package of prospects, and luckily for them, they would find two very interested teams in the American League willing to deal for Johnson.

    The first of those teams would be the New York Yankees. After having lost out on Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke, the Yankees were left with a starting rotation considerably weaker than what they've had in years past. The only "sure things" are CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Phil Hughes, and that front three hardly inspires much confidence. As of now, they'll turn to swing-man reliever, Sergio Mitre, and a pleasant surprise from 2010 in Ivan Nova. It's easy to see why they would jump at the chance to acquire Johnson, and they have the prospects to do so.

    In any package, the Marlins would want to acquire arms with high ceilings, so without a doubt, they would ask the Yankees for their best pitching prospects—Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos. They could build a very nice package around those hurlers, including top prospect, who would be a first baseman in Florida, Jesus Montero, and a fourth prospect that would likely be some combination of pitchers Andrew Brackman or Hector Noesi, shortstop / third baseman, Eduardo Nunez, outfielder Slade Heathcott, or third baseman, Brandon Laird.

    If they weren't pleased with the Yankees' offer, they could turn to the Texas Rangers, who are in a similar boat as the Yankees. Having lost out on Cliff Lee, the Rangers face a certain amount of uncertainty in their rotation as well. Though they could bolster it internally by moving closer, Neftali Feliz, to the rotation, they would be creating more holes than they were filling. As of now, the ace of their staff will be converted reliever, CJ Wilson, followed by Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter. Johnson would make this staff considerably better.

    What would it cost them? Well, Johnson wouldn't come cheap.

    The Marlins would certainly ask for the Rangers' top pitching prospect, Martin Perez, first and foremost. They could bolster a shaky bullpen with a prospect that looks destined to wind up there, Tanner Scheppers, who could become the Marlins' closer of the future. Outside of those two, one name that would certainly interest the Marlins is Jurrickson Profar. Just a teenager now, and blocked by Hanley Ramirez at shortstop, he could blossom into one of the league's top second baseman, if in the Marlins' system.

    They'd also be interested in a number of other of the Rangers' top ten prospects, including pitchers Robbie Erlin and Michael Kirkman, and outfielder Jake Skole and Engle Beltre.

    If the Marlins can't acquire four of the trading team's top ten prospects, they don't have to move Johnson. That's the beauty of having a pitcher of his caliber under control. They hold all the cards.

    Though the Rangers and Yankees would seem like the most interested teams with the best prospects available, a number of other teams have shown interest in the past. The Marlins could land packages far greater than those received by Kansas City and Tampa Bay for Zack Greinke and Matt Garza, respectively, and even use those deals as leverage.

The State of the Marlins Farm System Address

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    As stated in an earlier slide, the Marlins, as a franchise, have not committed to a specific direction. They aren't going to be big spender in the free agent market, like the Yankees, Red Sox or Phillies, and they haven't committed to the draft, like the Rays and Royals have. That leaves their farm system in a peculiar situation—it isn't great.

    Though the Marlins have a knack for developing talent, their farm system doesn't house that blue chip prospect that could have a big major league impact. Well, not anymore, anyway, with Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison having cemented roles on the major league club.

    According to Baseball America, the Marlins' top prospect is now third baseman, Matt Dominguez. Luckily for the Marlins, third base is one of their greatest areas of need. Dominguez, on the other hand, hasn't been all that impressive. In 2010, he posted as slash line of just .252 / .333 / .411, with 14 HR's at AA. Though he has solid defensive skills and good plate discipline, if he is the best the Marlins' system has to offer, the future is in jeopardy.

    Their best pitching prospect, according to Baseball America, is left handed pitcher, Chad James. James, however, is just 19 years old and several years away from an impact at the major league level.

    The pitching prospect most likely to have a big impact, in the near future, is right handed pitcher, Jhan Marinez. Marinez, 22, posted solid numbers as a reliever at both the A+ (15.63 K/9; 1.42 ERA) and AA (10.80 K/9; 2.70 ERA) levels, before earning a brief cup of coffee with the big league club. The Marlins like this kid a lot, and he has the talent to become, at the very least, an impact set-up man. The Marlins, of course, would like to see him inherit the role of closer, however.

    But do the Marlins have an impact starting pitcher in their system?

    The short answer is no. The best starting pitching prospect in the Marlins system, after James, is Brad Hand. Just 20 years old, Hand is closer to the major leagues than James but doesn't have as high of a ceiling. In 2010, he split time between the Marlins' A+ and AA clubs, posting a combined record of 9-8, with an ERA of 3.17 (just one start at AA). According to Baseball America, he has the best curveball in the Marlins' system.

    Rounding out the Marlins' top ten prospects are outfielder Christian Yelich, shortstop Osvaldo Martinez, outfielder Scott Cousins, catcher Kyle Skipsworth, outfielder Marcell Ozuna and left handed pitcher, Rob Rasmussen.

    The Marlins do not have much depth in their minor league system, and trading Josh Johnson would replenish their system by extraordinary means. They would be able to add high-ceiling pitchers, which their system severely lacks, and complementary positional prospects. If the Marlins won't be able to compete in the next three to four years, they could begin rebuilding now, and be a scary team in a couple of seasons.

    Trading Josh Johnson to replenish their farm system would surely help.

The Jeffrey Loria Situation

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    Since purchasing the Florida Marlins as part of an orchestrated move by Major League Baseball in 2002, Jeffrey Loria has garnered the reputation of being one of the cheapest, (and foolish, by some measures), owners in all of baseball.

    Since purchasing the team, his payroll has exceeded $60 million just once, in 2005, and the following season in 2006, the payroll dropped to just $14 million. He is notorious for trading star players before they become expensive, and approved one of the worst trades in the history of the Marlins' franchise, when the team sent third baseman Miguel Cabrera and starting pitcher Dontrelle Willis to the Detroit Tigers for prospects Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, Mike Rabelo, Burke Badenhop, Egulio de la Cruz and Dallas Trahern. The best prospects in the deal, Maybin and Miller, were both traded this offseason.

    The argument remains that Loria didn't want to pay his star players so that he could finance a new ballpark for the Marlins. In 2012, the team will move into Marlins Stadium. That has yet to be proven.

    The Marlins most recent offseason, which saw them sign free agents John Buck, Javier Vasquez and Randy Choate, but sent one of the most expensive Marlins', Dan Uggla, to Atlanta, has been one of the most notable offseasons in recent Marlins' history.

    So which Jeffrey Loria will we see moving forward?

    In the past, Loria has stated that he would like to move into his new ballpark with Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez as the faces of the franchise. However, things have changed in recent months.

    The Marlins signed Ricky Nolasco to a contract extension and traded away another face of the franchise in Uggla. Though he's made some impressive bids in the free agent market, he also has two premium corner outfielders who could become expensive in the near future in Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison. He could deem Johnson a necessary expendable and acquire some top notch talent in return.

    In the long run, Loria rules the day. If he believes that the Marlins can remain competitive while freeing up payroll for Stanton and Morrison, Johnson  better start packing his bags.

New Ballpark, New Faces?

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    Speaking of that new ballpark, the Marlins are going to have to make some important decisions regarding who the team moves onto the field in 2012. As stated in the previous slide, the Marlins would like to have Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez move them into their new ballpark, but would the disappearance of Johnson make that much of a difference?

    As of right now, the team would move most of their rosters into the new ballpark in 2012, including Ramirez, Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, John Buck and Randy Choate, who are under contract, and arbitration eligible players that include Burke Badenhop, Chris Coghlan, Clay Hensley, Chris Volstad, Emilio Bonafacio, Edward Mujica, John Baker, Dan Meyer and Brian Sanches. Even more notably, they will have a number of players that are not yet eligible for arbitration, including Gaby Sanchez, Scott Cousins, Michael Dunn, Logan Morrison, Alex Sanabia, Mike Stanton, Ryan Webb and Sean West.

    Would trading Josh Johnson make that much of a difference?

    To the Marlins' fan base, it would. They love their ace. However, from the Marlins point of view, they'd be killing several birds with one stone.

    If they moved him before this season started, they would be off the hook for $35.25 million—money that could be spent on locking up some of their young, talented players around the diamond, like Sanchez, Morrison and Stanton, at least through their arbitration years. As previous slides stated, they would also be able to bring a number of talented prospects to their system, including some teams that would offer prospects that are major league ready, like the Texas Rangers.

    So the question is, do the Marlins want to open their ballpark with a few new faces, or much of the same with Josh Johnson in tow?

Johnson's Not Enough

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    The Marlins are forced with a difficult decision—Can they win with Josh Johnson under contract, or should they add several more pieces for him? It's a tough choice to make, but the Marlins' chances of contending in the next few years are slim. With the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves having cemented themselves atop the National League East, and the Washington Nationals having made great strides in their farm system, the Marlins and New York Mets have challenging seasons ahead.

    Point blank: The Marlins are going to need more than Josh Johnson to compete.

    They''ve already built a very talented core, including All-Star potential players like Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison, and with Ricky Nolasco under contract, the Marlins have an ace caliber pitcher moving forward. They could trade Johnson and address several areas of need for the team, including starting pitching, the bullpen, third base, second base and the outfield in the future.

    The Marlins were put in a tough spot by the Phillies—the signing of Cliff Lee makes the Phillies a much better team, and the Marlins are going to have to switch directions in order to compete. Thanks to the Phils', trading Johnson could become a priority in the near future.