Free Agent Find- Josh Johnson

The Mariners have a dilemma on their hands. One that involves pitching. The team gave up the fifth most runs in baseball last season. They also finished in the statistical basement in categories such as WHIP, homeruns and wild pitches. A lot of that has to do with their starting pitchers, based on sheer workload compared to the bullpen.

The current starting rotation consists of Felix Hernandez, Hishashi Iwakuma, Joe Saunders, Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Maurer.

Going forward, Hernandez and Iwakuma are the only real locks. Saunders could be kept around, but that’s a story for another time.

The dilemma that I alluded to earlier is this: Seattle needs to upgrade its starting pitching, but they don’t want to block the path of the Big Three. No, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish aren’t walking through that door, but James Paxton, Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker are.

Seattle could throw all three of them in the fire and use the rookies with their two All-Stars, but in all likelihood, not all of the pitchers will be ready. Hence the M’s need a stop-gap player.

Enter Josh Johnson.

The former Marlins’ Ace struggled in a Blue Jays uniform. In 16 starts north-of-the-border he posted a 2-8 record with an ERA of 6.20. Not only did his ERA balloon, he also gave up more homeruns in 16 starts than he gave up in nearly twice as many starts in his final year in Miami. The potential is still there. He posted 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings in his first year in the AL, his highest total since 2010 when he was an All-Star and received votes for the Cy Young (finished 5th) and MVP (25th).

Due to numerous variables, Johnson won’t garner as much free agent attention as other starting pitchers who are also out of contract. Part of that has to do with his down year. It also has to do with the moderately strong class of free agent starters. Matt Garza, AJ Burnett and Masahiro Tanaka headline the group with other names such as Ervin Santana, Hiroki Kuroda, Bartolo Colon and Ricky Nolasco sure to garner interest.

The underlying theme here is that Johnson could be had for cheap, relative to his value. Teams won’t necessarily be lined up around the block with money to offer him like they will/would for Tanaka or Garza. This could be a one-man gold mine for the Mariners.

Obviously Johnson isn’t going to be a long-term piece in Seattle. He won’t sign a long contract and the Mariners like their youngsters moving forward, but Johnson could be a very enticing fit in the Emerald City.

Put it this way, the Mariners sign Johnson, he regains some of the form that he lost from his Cy Young worthy years, and the Mariners sell high on him at the deadline in order to gain a young piece for the future.

Not only is Johnson an attractive option to sign and flip come deadline day, he also will improve the M’s pitching staff.  His 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings were higher than every M’s starting pitcher not named Hernandez. That’s 2.2 more than Maurer, 2.7 more than Harang and 3.8 more than Saunders. This is useful considering the fact that the M’s were an extremely poor defensive unit, no matter what advanced stat you use. To sum it up, that’s two to three more outs that Johnson didn’t expose his fielders to, outs that never left the batters’ box.

Who knows, maybe the M’s contend with a trio of Felix, Iwakuma and Johnson. Maybe they decide that they like Johnson and want to keep him long term. This could allow them to trade the lesser, in their opinion, of the Big Three in a package for an impact bat along the lines of what they tried to get with Justin Upton.

Josh Johnson, one man gold mine for the Mariners.