Almost from the moment the Toronto Blue Jays acquired Josh Johnson, the talk has centred on how long he’ll actually stick around.
The 28-year-old starter – acquired by the Blue Jays in a 12-player trade with the Miami Marlins earlier this month – is a rare talent as a front-of-the-rotation starter, but one Toronto could lose to free agency at the conclusion of the 2013 season.
Johnson’s impending free agency and the quantity and quality of players the Blue Jays surrendered to get him, will make his 2013 performance one of the most closely scrutinized in Toronto and elsewhere.
Last week, Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos said he is open to the idea of an extension for Johnson.
As for Johnson, while the 6’7" right-hander didn’t shoot down the idea during a Thursday afternoon conference call with reporters, he insisted his focus lies elsewhere coming off an inconsistent and disappointing season in south Florida.
“That’d be great," Johnson replied when asked if he’d be willing to discuss an extension with the Blue Jays. "(But) that’s the last thing on my mind is getting an extension or how long I’m going to be there.
"It’s more about winning. It makes everything better. It makes food taste better, makes your wife happier, family happier, everything is better when you’re winning."
Entering the 2012 season, Johnson expected his Miami Marlins to do a lot more winning than losing, but a disastrous 68-94 campaign led to the firing of manager Ozzie Guillen and the fire sale that shipped him along with Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonafacio and John Buck to Toronto.
“Oh man, it was tough," Johnson said when asked what went wrong in Miami. "Everything that could wrong went wrong. It seemed like sometimes it was more about the stadium and that, rather than winning."
Johnson didn’t help matters for himself, or the Marlins, by posting a 6.61 ERA over his first six starts of 2012. But over the course of five June outings Johnson eventually found his stride – literally – after battling his tempo earlier in the year.
His ERA for the month of June was a tidy 1.87.
But in July, Johnson’s struggles with his mechanics returned along with a desire to "find a little more velocity," something the radar gun says he lost since missing most of the 2011 season with right shoulder inflammation.
Back in 2009 Johnson’s fastball averaged 94.9 m.p.h. according to fangraphs.com. The following year — when his fastball averaged 94.7 – Johnson led the NL with a 2.30 ERA.
But in 2012 – after treating the shoulder inflammation the previous year with rest — Johnson’s fastball averaged 92.8 m.p.h.
But what he lost in velocity in 2012; Johnson appeared to gain in the form of a new pitch to his arsenal – a curveball.
Prior to 2012 Johnson said he hadn’t thrown a curveball regularly since single-A when he showed up one day to bullpen session and a coach suddenly ordered him to stop throwing it in favour of a slider.
But in 2012 Johnson began to rely on his curve more and more, throwing it 15.1 per cent of the time compared to 8.2 per cent during his abbreviated 2011 campaign.
As a result, Johnson relied less on his changeup (7 per cent in 2012 vs. 8.7 per cent in 2011) and two-seam fastball (4.8 per cent in 2012 vs. 14.5 per cent in 2011).
“Just last year, I finally learned how to pitch with it," Johnson explained. "Last year I started throwing it 0-2, 3-2, 2-0, I was throwing it every count, so it’s a pitch I relied on a lot last year.
"It was a good thing I had John Buck back there because he helped me out tremendously. Whenever I was in doubt, he’d give me that reassurance that this is the right pitch, let’s throw it."
Johnson had a strong finish to 2012 posting a 3.01 ERA over his final 12 starts while holding opposing hitters to a .202/.282/.336/.617 slash line.
"I wasn’t throwing any harder or anything like that," Johnson explained, "But the depth I had on my slider and curveball and the location of my fastball got much, much better."
Should Johnson start 2013 the way he finished last year it’ll go a long way to helping the Blue Jays avoid a 2012 Marlins-like slow start, even if it’ll do little to kill talk of where he might be pitching in 2014 and beyond.