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Monday, October 28, 2013
Spend Fred's Money: Josh Johnson

By Mark Simon

Derrick Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDo you want this man pitching for the Mets in 2014?
Our Yankees-writing colleagues have devoted a good chunk of their time this month to a feature called “Spend Hal’s Money,” assessing free-agent talent of various shapes and sizes. The Mets don’t have the unlimited resources to splurge like the Yankees do, but the subject of today’s feature is an interesting one for both teams to consider. So we’ll borrow the idea for a day and debate the idea of spending Fred’s (aka Wilpon’s) money on Josh Johnson.

Today's candidate: Josh Johnson
Position: Starting Pitcher
Age: Turns 30 on Jan. 31
Height: 6-7
Weight: 250
2013 numbers: 2-8, 6.20 ERA in 16 starts with Blue Jays

Expected going rate: Johnson made $13.75 million the past three seasons, but shouldn’t get anything close to that this time around, considering that he’s been significantly hampered by injuries in two of the past three seasons.

Historically, oft-injured pitchers with a history of quality work (even if it’s a distant history) get contracts with incentive packages, like the one the Mets gave Shaun Marcum last season ($4 million base).

Johnson’s history rates better than Marcum’s, so figure his base deal will be more than that. Fangraphs.com, which runs polls to project free-agent contracts (with a strong level of accuracy) had Johnson getting a two-year deal worth between $18.3 million and $19.9 million.

The pros: When Johnson is fully healthy, he is capable of being an ace, or something close to it.

In 2009 and 2010, he posted a 2.80 ERA and 3.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61 starts.

Back then, his fastball clocked in at 95 mph and was impossible to hit for power against because he could locate it so well. Johnson’s slider was also among the hardest in baseball (87 mph) over that two-year period.

Johnson is also not necessarily as bad as he looked in 2013. Though his ERA was 6.20, his strikeout-to-walk ratio and volume of fly balls allowed were more suggestive of an ERA of 3.58.

The cons: Johnson has had a litany of injuries to his right arm that have limited him to an average of 19 starts per season over the past seven years, with three seasons in which he made fewer than 15 starts and another (2013) in which he made only 16.

In 2007, he had two separate disabled list stints, then ended up having Tommy John surgery. In 2011, he had right shoulder inflammation. In 2013, he had right triceps inflammation and a strained forearm, then had an operation to remove a bone spur last month.

Johnson’s average fastball was at 93 mph last season. Much like with CC Sabathia, the lost velocity isn’t something that would seem likely to come back.

The verdict: Johnson is going to be one of the most intriguing free-agent signings this winter because of his combination of tantalizing potential and legitimate risk. He probably makes the most sense for a team looking to go bargain-hunting.

That’s where he makes for a fit with the Mets. This is one case where Sandy Alderson & Co. should do a thorough investigation of Johnson’s medical records to deem whether this is a risk worth taking.

Yes, the return could be another Marcum, but given the absence of Matt Harvey, why not take the chance on a Harvey-like payoff if things break right?