TORONTO – The agent for Josh Johnson says the pending free agent has “unfinished business” with the Toronto Blue Jays, would likely accept a qualifying offer if the club tendered one, and can probably earn a contract of similar value with incentives on the open market.
The key in how everything plays out is the way GM Alex Anthopoulos and his counterparts around the big-leagues evaluate the big right-hander’s chances of staying much healthier in 2014 than he did during an injury-sapped 2013, Matt Sosnick tells sportsnet.ca.
Johnson needs about four more weeks to fully recover from the forearm strain that ended his season, according to Sosnick, and the Blue Jays are expected to watch him throw off a mound soon after as they ponder the tricky question of what to do with one of their prized off-season acquisitions from last winter.
The Blue Jays have until five days after the World Series to make Johnson a qualifying offer of roughly $14 million (based on an average of the top 125 player salaries during the 2013 season) for one year, which guarantees them draft-pick compensation should the 29-year-old decline and sign elsewhere.
Unless Johnson completely blows them away, the Blue Jays are highly unlikely to go that route, with an incentive-based deal probably a more realistic approach for Anthopoulos to take. To this point he hasn’t signed a single contract with incentives since taking over as GM, but it’s believed a free agent of merit would change that.
Either way, the cash outlay could be significant, and the question becomes whether the Blue Jays can reallocate the money to another starter who is a surer thing with a similar ceiling.
“If (Johnson) got a qualifying offer he’d be happy to take it, and my sense is that it will be based on how Alex and his medical staff feel the chances are that he’s going to have a healthy year next year. If they make a qualifying offer to him, our expectation is that he’ll go back to Toronto and if they don’t, it’s certainly not going to be personal,” says Sosnick, who praises Anthopoulos for his bold moves last off-season and enjoys working with the GM.
“I’d be much more open to making a compromise with Alex, based on the fact he made this (trade with Miami), and it did not work out with a lot of guys including Josh the way he would have chosen. In his case I think it will come down to making a qualifying offer or not, because I think Josh Johnson for sure gets a base of $10 million or above, just based on the fact there are no pitchers out there.
“Teams that have money, a $10 million shot would not be a big gamble on their part, no matter what they got out of it.”
Sosnick adds that he’s not interested in signing a multi-year contract, an obvious approach after Johnson spent nearly half the season on the DL with triceps and forearm problems, and struggled badly while on the mound.
In 16 starts he posted a 2-8 record with a 6.20 ERA and a WHIP of 1.660, the highest of his career in a full season. His homers-per-nine innings rate of 1.7 was also more than double his previous high, but his 9.2 strikeouts-per-nine rate was his best in the big-leagues.
Still, it was a stunning performance, as during the spring Johnson was arguably considered this fall’s top free agent pitcher on the market, alongside Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Hiroki Kuroda and Ricky Nolasco.
Given his age and pedigree, it’s not unreasonable to think Johnson could be that type of pitcher again, that 2013 was simply the kind of dismal season good players occasionally experience.
Then again, maybe it was a sign health issues are beginning to catch up with him, and settling on a fair value for such a roll of the dice, especially given his previous shoulder issues, can be a risky bit of business.
The $10 million base floated by Sosnick does have some precedent, as in 2010 the Oakland Athletics gave Ben Sheets a one-year deal worth $10 million plus $2 million in performance bonuses, after the right-hander missed all of the ’09 season because of surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon. Sheets went 4-9 with a 4.53 ERA in 20 starts.
And last November, the Chicago Cubs gave Scott Baker $5.5 million for one year plus up to $1.5 million more in incentives with the righty coming off Tommy John surgery in 2011. He made his first start of the year Saturday, throwing five shutout innings against the Brewers.
A one-year gamble for Johnson — without the long-term commitment other top free agents will require — in that range has some merit, and may very well appeal to some teams.
“I believe there will be between six and eight teams that will offer him between $10-15 million,” says Sosnick. “It’s money that gets eaten in trades at the deadline all the time, and you can get a Cy Young type guy. The question for Alex is can he replace the potential Josh is going to give him and is he willing to absorb the risk? I don’t know what the answers are, but we’re certainly hoping that he has a chance, no matter what he’s offered somewhere else, to go out and make good in Toronto.
“My personal hope is that Josh has a chance to go back and to perform and help the team win. I think he feels like he’d like to be successful in Toronto, and validate his part of Alex’s deal.”
Such a scenario would be ideal for the Blue Jays, who must decide if bringing Johnson back is a clever buy-low on a pitcher ready to shine, or a case of spending good money after bad on someone they’ve already been wrong about once.