Davidi: Critical time for Johnson on multiple levels

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Josh Johnson delivers against the Baltimore Orioles in the first inning of a baseball game on Sunday, July 14, 2013, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

TORONTO – Josh Johnson pauses and takes a deep breath when he’s asked what, if anything, went right for him before the all-star break.

“Oh man, not a whole lot,” the towering Toronto Blue Jays right-hander replied Friday. “I felt good, but it always seemed like I was a work in progress.

“Last year I was more battling mechanical problems, but I felt great. This year my mechanics are back to where they were a couple of years ago, not the getting results is tough. You want to go out there and show these guys that I’m going to battle for you, I’m going to go six, seven, eight, nine every time out.

“It’s almost been the opposite.”

That goes for the Blue Jays as a whole, who like Johnson left spring training primed and ready for a big season but instead spent the campaign’s opening stanza unable to gain steady footing. Given that he’s a pending free agent this fall, Johnson’s got plenty riding on a strong recovery, with GM Alex Anthopoulos showing no inclination to trade him before the July 31 trade deadline.

The next 2½ months will go a long way in determining whether Johnson enters free agency as one of the market’s prime pitching targets in position to command a significant multi-year deal (the US$82.5-million, five-year deal A.J. Burnett signed with the New York Yankees in 2008 might be a potential comparable), or in a situation where accepting a one-year qualifying offer from the Blue Jays to rebuild his value is the most sensible course of action.

Either way, it’s a critical period on multiple levels.

“Different, but I don’t worry about it,” Johnson said of dealing with uncertainty about his future for the first time. “There’s nothing I can do about it except go out there and pitch, and hopefully throw the ball well. …

“If you start worrying about it then you’re not worrying about your next start, your next outing, or getting ready for your next start.”

And really, that’s where the heavy lifting lies for the 29-year-old.

At 1-5 with a 5.16 earned-run average over 12 starts sandwiched around a “weird” trip to the disabled list due to a biceps injury, Johnson is on pace for the worst statistical season of his career.

Though peripherals such as his strikeouts and walks per nine are right around or better than his previous norms, his hits per nine of 10.3 sits two hits above his career average. More concerning is that he’s already surrendered 10 home runs (on 68 fly balls over 66.1 innings), and he’s never given up more than 14 before in a single season.

In 2012, for instance, he allowed 14 homers on 166 fly balls over 191.1 innings.

None of it makes much sense to Johnson, which is why the all-star break was so good for him, allowing him to push a mental reset button. Or as he put it, “clean slate, wiped clean, forget everything.”

“I think my mindset the last two or three starts was a lot better than it was the few starts before them,” he continued. “I might have been just missing off the plate, but I feel like I was right there, mechanics-wise I feel good, being aggressive.”

While Johnson plans to be more aggressive with his repertoire in general, one pitch in particular he wants to focus on is his curveball, which “seems like I would almost baby it up there sometimes trying to get a strike.”

“Then all of a sudden I’m watching (Brett) Cecil throw them, his curveball is out and straight down and that’s why guys have trouble trying to hit it. It’s such a good pitch, it comes out like a fastball and disappears. Mine, it feels like it comes up and guys see it right away, they may take it for a strike, or take it for a ball, but I want to be more aggressive with that. I threw good curveballs the last game, so there’s definitely some positives from the last couple of starts.”

Johnson lost his last three starts heading into the break, deserving a better fate July 9 in a 3-0 loss at Cleveland when he allowed two runs in seven innings, and then falling victim to a few big blows in a 7-4 loss at Baltimore.

The Blue Jays are 3-9 overall in his 12 starts, one of the many reasons he feels his teammates and fans have yet to see what he can bring to the table.

“One hundred per cent,” he said.

Johnson’s next chance to turn things around comes Monday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, in the midst of a key stretch during which the Blue Jays must resuscitate a season in dire straits.

Even if they get on a good long run, it may be too little too late in the standings, but all they can do is try to put pressure on their opponents and see where that takes them.

“You try and do your job, that’s it,” said Johnson. “Once you do your job and everybody does their own job, things take off. We had that 11 game win streak and everyone was doing their job. Guys were getting deep into games, coming up with big hits, big defensive plays, everything.

“We were rolling then, we want to get on one of those now.”

Regardless of how that plays out, Johnson understands he’ll be the subject of trade rumours between now and the July 31 trade deadline, even though it makes little sense for the Blue Jays to deal him.

Anthopoulos has often spoken of the difficulty in acquiring elite pitchers and through Johnson is deep into an off-year, he certainly qualifies.

Extending him a qualifying offer in the off-season is a no-brainer because if he accepts the Blue Jays would be happy to take him back on a one-year deal, and if he declines, they would get a compensatory draft pick should he depart that would offer them all kinds of flexibility to manipulate their spending pool next year.

Keeping him around also gives the Blue Jays more of an opportunity to evaluate him and perhaps structure an extension in which both the team and the player share the risk.

Whatever happens, at least Johnson’s time with the Miami Marlins taught him to deal with the constant speculation.

“The main part of it is everybody asking you questions – it gets kind of frustrating, but it’s part of it,” said Johnson. “Last year we’d come in and it was, ‘Who’s getting traded next?’ We’d joke around with each other, ‘Looks like you might be going to so and so.’ Me and Ricky Nolasco, and Mark Buehrle was a main part of that, he was joking around with us all the time.”

The Blue Jays aren’t the Marlins, however, and at this point they’re showing no signs that they intend to take a step back from their buildup. They want to add, not subtract, and their window of opportunity extends into the years to come.

Johnson can certainly see himself continuing to be part of the core.

“Oh yeah, I don’t ever close doors,” he said. “They treat you like a man here, that’s been pretty fun being treated that way. They have respect for what you do and stuff like that.

“Toronto has been awesome, the fans have been amazing, and I haven’t even pitched well. The clubhouse has been awesome, the guys on the team, the front office has been really good, they’ve always been open with me and talked to me.

“It’s a new experience and it’s been a lot of fun, I just want to win some more games.”

So, too, do the rest of the Blue Jays, and they’re running out of time to make it happen.

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