As Fish Stripes author Ehsan Kassim pointed out a few days ago, the Miami Marlins have a difficult decision to make with regards to Josh Johnson. After all, Johnson has only one year left on his four-year extension, and it is worth a pretty penny at $13.75 million. It is a fair deal for the Marlins, since Johnson is worth more than that in the free agent market, but with all the news that the Marlins may cut payroll to $80 million next season, the team could consider losing some payroll to make some other moves and fill multiple holes in their now-vacuous lineup.
In fact, that is exactly what Ehsan suggests.
The idea that the Marlins could fill open spots at third base, second base, or the outfield with a trade of Johnson is an attractive one. And with the Marlins less likely to compete at a lower payroll, the team could essentially reset this 2012 era much shorter than expected and begin that youth movement around Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Reyes a year earlier than expected.
But as I watched last night's 3-0 loss to the Atlanta Braves, I realized that the key to whether or not to make a Johnson trade, aside from aesthetic factors regarding how the team would look without yet another marquee player from the previous era, is whether the team feels Johnson is a worthy part of the Marlins' future beyond 2013. Were the club to attempt a reload in 2013 with a signing or two, I would be firm in the stance I took at the trade deadline to not trade Johnson, as the Marlins would need his help to stay decently competitive in 2013. But if the team is indeed potentially pocketing most of the money saved in the Hanley Ramirez trade in 2013 and unlikely to make more than one mid-level signing, than the Marlins' chances of contention with this core are going to be low. And if the odds of competing will be low, what is the point of holding on to Johnson's final year?
The only point would be if it was not Johnson's final season as a Marlin. The only point would be that the Marlins wanted Johnson back.
But should they want him back long-term?
The Interesting Velocity Split
We have all pointed out that Josh Johnson has had a decreased velocity since returning from his bout with a shoulder injury last season. From 2009 to 2011, Johnson averaged 94.7 mph on his fastballs and was stellar. But in his other seasons, his fastball was significantly weaker, and it showed in the results.
|Johnson||FB Vel (mph)||IP||K%||BB%||ERA||FIP|
|2006-2008, 2012||92.5||451 1/3||20.4||9.0||3.65||3.65|
That is a pretty telling difference in performance. Of course, there are many other factors involved, including Johnson improving as a player from 2006 to 2009 and his age potentially becoming a factor in 2012. But still, this comparison displays the potential problem of Johnson's velocity dip. His strikeouts are down while his walks and home runs are up when compared to his almost-95 mph days as a pitcher, and the result is an almost one-run increase per nine innings.
Now, earlier in the year, we showed you that Johnson was already regressing to his mean after an ugly April, but that his velocity was still keeping his ERA high.
Remember that we expected a 2.99 ERA from Johnson before the season. In his season overall, he has a 3.73 ERA, and his fastball velocity drop of almost 1.5 mph would have expected an ERA of 3.38. The velocity gets us halfway there to explaining the deficit between Johnson's expected and current performance. From May onwards, the velocity went up to 92.9 mph, and that difference yields a similarly expected ERA of around 3.40, which is conveniently right around where Johnson was from May going forward.
According to this analysis, we should expect an ERA of around 3.40 for Johnson going forward based on this fastball velocity. That is a good pitcher, but not an elite starter in the majors as of right now. The fact that his performance has sagged at other times when he was at this velocity is also telling. For example, in his 87 1/3 innings in 2008. he posted a 93.1 mph velocity for the season and a 3.37 FIP to go with his 3.61 ERA. Those numbers are not all that far away from what Johnson has done this very season.
Worthy of Extension?
So that is the evidence that the Marlins have staring back into their face. Johnson's velocity is down, and all throughout his career, when his velocity has been at this level, he has not been the elite starter that the team has assumed him to be. So should the team consider him for an extension?
Well, maybe that idea depends on the 2013 season. The Marlins may think that Johnson is on the cusp of either getting a new contract extension or not. Maybe the team wants to see if that velocity can return, because it certainly has not been there the entire year. Maybe the team wants to see if the velocity can return not only so that they can make a better decision on an extension, but so that other teams can see that Johnson can return to elite levels after a lesser 2012 season.
It may also depend on the return. The Fish were asking for too much at the deadline as it stands, and teams may not be willing to give that much now that the 2012 stretch run will not be a part of the deal. If the Marlins do not see the trade that they like, whether or not their desire is fair, the team may hold onto him after all.
But ultimately, the smartest decision will be made based on whether or not the Marlins think Josh Johnson is worthy of an extension. If the team thinks he is good enough in 2014 or beyond, then they may hold onto him. If the team thinks he will not be in the future plans, they should trade him in the offseason. The problem, it seems, is that the 2013 season may very well be the deciding factor regarding an extension.