Josh Johnson is a smart man. Coming off a season in which he made just 16 starts for the Blue Jays and posted a 6.20 ERA, Johnson saw his free-agent value crater. What better way to potentially secure a bigger payday in the future than to sign a one-year, $8 million deal with the Padres to pitch in pitcher-friendly Petco Park?
This plan worked for Aaron Harang. After a 5.32 ERA with the Reds in 2010, he signed with the Padres in 2011 and had a 3.64 ERA. That earned him a two-year, $12 million contract from the Dodgers. Jon Garland signed a one-year deal with the Padres in 2010 and posted a 3.47 ERA, the best of his career. He signed a $5 million deal with the Dodgers with an $8 million club option. Kevin Correia had never made more than 19 starts before going to the Padres in 2009. He won 22 games with a 4.54 ERA in two seasons in San Diego, enough to earn him a two-year, $8 million contract from the Pirates.
Those are modest contracts but those were modest players, replacement-level pitchers who earned security after getting their ERAs propped up in San Diego.
Johnson has much more upside than any of those guys but the idea is the same: Go to San Diego, throw strikes, watch fly balls die on the warning track and hope to make 30 starts. In his final four seasons with the Marlins from 2009 to 2012, Johnson posted a 2.99 ERA in 101 starts (he missed much of 2011), leading the National League with a 2.30 ERA in 2010. When he's healthy, he has the stuff to lead a rotation.
But what are the odds he bounces back?
I did a quick study via Baseball-Reference.com. I looked at pitchers from the 10-year-span from 2003 to 2012, with the following criteria: 28 to 30 years old (Johnson was 29 in 2012), at least 10 games started but fewer than 120 innings pitched, ERA+ of 80 or less. So basically a list of pitchers at Johnson's age who had really bad seasons (although not necessarily due to an injury).
It's a list of 28 pitches. It's a bad list, but with a few big names: Jonathan Sanchez, Nick Blackburn, Justin Germano, Dontrelle Willis (twice), Rich Harden, Rich Hill, Dave Bush, Chris Young, Brad Penny, Adam Eaton, Freddy Garcia, Cliff Lee, Byung-Hyun Kim, Jason Jennings, Jae Weong So, Joe Mays, Josh Towers, Victor Santos, Runelvys Hernandez, Shawn Chacon, Mark Mulder, Sidney Ponson, Luke Hudson, Jaret Wright, Eric DuBose, Tony Mounce, Jimmy Haynes.
Those are Johnson's comparables, at least from a statistical view. Let's isolate the pitchers who were more comparable to Johnson with stuff and previous success.
Dontrelle Willis: Won 22 games with the Marlins at age 23, but essentially developed a case of Steve Blass Disease (unable to throw strikes) and was never the same.
Rich Harden: Like Johnson, he had ace-level stuff when healthy but could never stay off the disabled list, and shoulder problems finally ended his career. In 2010, he had 5.58 ERA with the Rangers in 18 starts and in 2011 a 5.12 ERA with the A's in 15 starts.
Brad Penny: After making the All-Star team in 2006 and 2007, Penny had a 6.27 ERA with the Dodgers in 2008, hobbled by a sore shoulder. He was never as good again, posting a 4.92 ERA over his final four seasons.
Freddy Garcia: Garcia averaged over 200 innings per season from 1999 through 2006 before a shoulder injury led to him making just 23 starts over the next three seasons. He eventually returned as a junk-balling finesse guy but never topped 157 innings again.
Cliff Lee: He'd won 46 games for the Indians from 2004 to 2006 but fell apart in 2007 and had a 6.29 ERA. His problems were mental and mechanical, however, not injury-related.
Mark Mulder: He made 17 starts with the Cardinals in 2006 with a 7.14, finally undergoing rotator-cuff surgery. He'd make just four more starts in his career.
Jaret Wright: After going 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA with the Braves in 2004 he signed a big free-agent deal with the Yankees, but had a 6.08 ERA in 13 starts after shoulder issues resurfaced (he had missed nearly three seasons of action earlier in his career).
Lee is the exception here, but all the others never recovered. Other than Willis, they all had shoulder issues. Johnson had Tommy John surgery early in his career, but missed most of 2011 with shoulder inflammation. His injuries last year included soreness in his right triceps, forearm tightness and finally surgery in October to remove bone chips in his elbow.
This is a short list of comparable players but the history of shoulder problems with Johnson is obviously the big concern. I certainly wouldn't bet on Johnson making 30 starts, but for $8 million it's a good gamble for the Padres.
The biggest positive about Johnson is that his strikeout rate in 2013 was right in line with his career percentage (21.6 percent versus 21.9 percent) and maybe the Padres saw something in his mechanics that led to Johnson allowing a .240 average with the bases empty but .392 with runners on base. His fastball velocity didn't drop from the stretch so something else was going on there.