The Pittsburgh Pirates were rumored last week to be making calls on “high-upside” starting pitchers, and it appears Josh Johnson was one of them. Johnson apparently told the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres that he would prefer to sign there, due to their proximity to his home in Las Vegas. However, Johnson’s agent, Matt Sosnick, told Travis Sawchick of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the Pirates are one of “three or four” teams on his short list of teams that he is interested in.
Johnson is a huge risk, but the potential reward is great. When healthy, he is one of the top pitchers in the MLB. Unfortunately, he has had bad injuries, and they have been very frequent in recent seasons. His best season came in 2010 when he went 11-6 with a 2.30 ERA in 183.2 innings pitched. In that season, Johnson put up great peripheral numbers, including 9.1 K/9, 2.4 BB/9 and a league-leading 0.3 HR/9. As shown by his low HR/9, Johnson is a ground-ball pitcher that can also strike out a lot of hitters. The Pirates have shown the ability to “fix” these types of pitchers.
In 2013, Johnson had a horrible year — that is, if you look at it on the surface. If you dig a little deeper into his statistics, you will see that Johnson wasn’t nearly as bad as he seemed. Last season, he went 2-8 with a 6.20 ERA in 81.1 innings. Those stats are awful, as you already know, however, he had some decent peripheral numbers that suggest that he is a legitimate bounce-back candidate. For instance, he had a 3.58 xFIP and 9.2 K/9. He was also extremely unlucky — his opponents’ BABIP was .356 and 18.5 percent of the fly balls hit against him were home runs, leading to his 1.66 HR/9.
The other three unknown teams haven’t necessarily been made public yet, but we know that they are all National League teams. We can probably assume that either the Padres or Giants, or both, are in his top three. The cost it will take to sign Johnson is unknown at this point, but he is definitely a bargain-buy candidate.