‘Disappointed’ Johnson open to Blue Jays return

Free agent right-hander Josh Johnson (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays jettisoned Josh Johnson, a candidate for a nine-figure contract a year ago, into free agency without a qualifying offer Monday, meaning they won’t receive a compensatory draft should the hulking right-hander sign somewhere else.

General manager Alex Anthopoulos made the safe and logical play by not extending the $14.1 million offer which Johnson would have accepted, not seeing enough potential reward to justify the risk.

Instead, he essentially parted ways with one of the centre-pieces of last November’s blockbuster with the Miami Marlins after Johnson struggled through injury and poor performance throughout a miserable 2013.

Poised at the time to cash in big this winter, Johnson instead is in a position now where he must rebuild his value in 2014 on a one-year deal, and pitchers don’t usually do that in the American League East with the Blue Jays.

A contract guaranteeing him $6-$10 million plus incentives isn’t out of the question and there will be strong interest in the 29-year-old – 19 teams are said to have already inquired about him to some degree. Feeling strong after surgery last month to remove a bone spur and loose bodies from his elbow, he may very well regain his past all-star form somewhere else.

While that’s a nightmare scenario for the Blue Jays, clearly they believe they can take the $14.1 million they would have spent on Johnson and use it more effectively elsewhere. While neither side is ruling out another season together, the sense is they’ll be moving on without one another.

"I guess I’m not really too surprised with the way everything went down last year and how I pitched whenever I was out there," Johnson told sportsnet.ca from Hawaii, where he’s vacationing with agent Matt Sosnick and golf coach Pat O’Brien. "It’s tough to be (in Toronto) for only one year and to have that bad of a year, it’s disappointing. Now I get thrown into free agency and get to experience it a little bit and see what it’s about. Excited, but still a little disappointed in how last year went."

The Blue Jays, coming off a 74-88 finish, realistically need at least two significant additions to a starting rotation that right now features only two sure things – R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle. They have lots of of other options to fill the spots behind them – J.A. Happ, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison, Sean Nolin and Marcus Stroman – but the real wild card is Brandon Morrow.

The electric right-hander, recovering from a nerve issue in his arm, is throwing at 120 feet right now and if healthy, changes the dynamic dramatically. Still, the Blue Jays will be active in finding help for the rotation, with free agents like Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez (whom the Blue Jays tried to acquire when the Colorado Rockies sent him to the Cleveland Indians) and trade candidates like Jeff Samardzija likely in play.

Either way, they must better manage the health risks they take on, something Anthopoulos acknowledged at season’s end and is surely a lesson to be gleaned from the whole Johnson experience.

He went on the disabled list with triceps and forearm issues around his struggles, and with Morrow already in house, the Blue Jays can only afford to count on so many health-related question marks.

Johnson looked dominant during spring training but was en route to the DL by the end of April and never really felt right.

"We were doing treatment on my triceps since pretty much the first day I showed up at spring training," he said. "That was very minor, there was just a little tightness, but we did stuff to it all year long. I guess (the surgery) was something that had to happen, I wish it could have gotten done earlier, came back and pitched in the season and thrown the ball well. It didn’t really work out like that. That’s what the last ditch effort is, to have that surgery."

In 16 starts Johnson posted a 2-8 record with a 6.20 earned-run average and 1.660 WHIP over 81.1 innings, by far the biggest disappointment and most pivotal disappointment from the Blue Jays’ off-season buildup.

At the time of the Marlins deal, the thinking was that at minimum the Blue Jays would end up with a compensatory draft pick should he walk, and that they won’t even get that makes things more painful.

More frustrating is that Johnson says right now that he feels "great, everything is going good" after the surgery, setting the stage for him to bounce back in 2014, likely in a weaker division and home ballpark less hitter-friendly than the Rogers Centre.

"(Dr. James Andrews) said everything looks great, everything is going according to plan," said Johnson. "I’m 100 per cent, pretty much full go for everything except for golf, that’s pretty much it. He said I can start swinging a club in about five days, so it’s going pretty fast and everything feels great.

"I felt like my triceps all the way up to pretty much armpit released just about two weeks ago. It was sore, but I feel like it’s starting to get back to normal than what it was for however long."

The Blue Jays, however, did not feel confident enough in his ability to stay healthy to gamble $14.1 million on him, even though it would have other teams from the process in what’s shaping up as a frenzied market for pitching.

That decision marked an end to a star-crossed season north of the border for Johnson, who was grateful for the way he was treated.

"Even as I was throwing the ball that bad, everyone was always supporting me and that was good to see," he said. "It was awesome, I just wish I would have thrown the ball better while I was there. That’s pretty much what it comes down to. It’s tough to leave it like that. I don’t know if there’s a chance of going back there or not, I’ve got to figure that out in the next week or so."

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