Jays weigh qualifying offer for Johnson

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Josh Johnson throws against the Seattle Mariners. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

TORONTO – The debate over whether to tender free agent starter Josh Johnson a qualifying offer continues for the Toronto Blue Jays, with a decision due by Monday’s 5 p.m. ET deadline.

Which way they’re leaning at this point is largely contingent on how the club’s doctors assess his health after the right-hander underwent surgery to remove a bone spur and loose bodies from his elbow last month.

Teams that extend their own free agents a qualifying offer of $14.1 million – the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball – are entitled to draft-pick compensation if the player signs elsewhere. Last year, interest in free agents who rejected qualifying offers to hit the open market was deterred by the compensatory pick, but Johnson is a near certainty to accept if he gets an offer.

Under normal circumstances qualifying Johnson would be a no-brainer, but after a miserable and injury-marred season that included two stints on the disabled list and a 2-8 record with a 6.20 earned-run average in 16 starts, the decision is far more complicated.

Matt Sosnick, Johnson’s agent, said Friday that his client is pain-free, that his rehabilitation is going well and that he’s roughly a week away from starting to throw again. As for which way Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos might be leaning, Sosnick still isn’t sure.

“Alex and I really haven’t talked about it much,” said Sosnick, who will be vacationing in Hawaii with the families of Johnson and golf coach Pat O’Brien when Monday’s deadline passes. “I can see good reasons to qualify him or not qualify him. We’ll wait to see what he decides.”

The equation is likely simple – if the Blue Jays decide he’s out of the woods medically and at a low risk for a recurrence, they’ll extend him the offer, if not they’ll decline and perhaps try to re-sign him to a deal with less guaranteed money.

Another important consideration is what alternatives the Blue Jays have to Johnson, and what they might cost.

In free agency the pitching market is scarce, demand is high and prices may very well skyrocket, making $14.1 million for Johnson and his upside a reasonable risk.

At the same time, the money may arguably be better spent on someone like Ervin Santana, the free agent right-hander who will assuredly get a qualifying offer from the Kansas City Royals.

Over the past four seasons, the right-hander has posted a 46-45 mark in 128 starts with a 3.87 ERA over 840.1 innings. While the Blue Jays would have to make a multi-year commitment to him in excess of $14.1 million per season, stability in their rotation might make more sense.

Carrying both Johnson and Brandon Morrow – who is throwing up to 120 feet and feeling good – may be too much health risk for the Blue Jays to assume. Doing a better job of managing risk is something Anthopoulos touched on at season’s end.

By virtue of their finish among baseball’s bottom 10, the Blue Jays would have to surrender only a second-round pick, not a first-rounder, if they signed a qualified free agent.

The Blue Jays could also bolster their rotation through trade – Chicago Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija is one top pitcher industry people believe may become available – but that will cost the club farm-system assets that aren’t as plentiful as they were last year.

All of the above, combined with the challenge of matching up with a team in trade or luring a free agent to Toronto, is why qualifying Johnson makes some sense.

But it’s also one expensive gamble, one the Blue Jays are still deciding if they want to take.

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