Why Josh Johnson isn’t A.J. Burnett or Carl Pavano

Buster Olney of ESPN recently mentioned that the Marlins were more than interested in holding onto Josh Johnson until the Marlins fall out of contention in 2010. This seems like a viable ploy, even though I do not feel the Marlins will attempt to field a competitive team despite this overture.

Over the weekend though, I read this number from Joe Frisaro of MLB.com. Here’s the pertinent quote:

Don’t dismiss the prospect that the team will end up signing [Josh Johnson] for 2011 as well, and if need be, take the compensatory draft picks in 2012 if the right-hander signs elsewhere when he reaches free agency. Also, the team may decide to keep him in 2011, and if they fall out of contention, then trade him at the July 31 deadline.

In the past, the Marlins accepted draft picks for pitchers Carl Pavano and A.J. Burnett when they moved on through free agency.

Yes, theoretically those are the options for the Johnson situation. However, the bit about comparing JJ to former Marlins Carl Pavano and A.J. Burnett with regards to compensation just are not very good. It’s quite simple really: the situation with Johnson is significantly better for the receiving team than it would have been for either Pavano or Burnett. Here’s why.

Pavano and Burnett left in consecutive seasons in 2004 and 2005 coming off of excellent years. Pavano left in the offseason following the 2004 season after posting an 18-8 record and a 3.00 ERA for the Fish. Burnett walked after a career year in 2005, when he went 12-12 but pitched 209 innings and struck out 198 batters, posting a solid 3.44 ERA. The problem with both of these pitchers is that, unlike Johnson, neither had the projectable upside JJ has.

Johnson will be entering his age 26 season having pitched a dominant year, perhaps a bit better than both Pavano and Burnett. Johnson was worth 5.5 WAR according to FanGraphs, while Pavano clocked in at 4.4 WAR and Burnett at 5.1 WAR in 2004 and 2005 respectively. However, Johnson still has two seasons of team control left following that dominant season, while Burnett and Pavano both were free agents after their career years. The comparison would be better made if looked at following each player’s first arbitration season.

Pavano’s first year of arbitration eligibility came during his 2002 season, which he split between the Marlins and Montreal Expos. I won’t bore you with the details, other than to say that according to FanGraphs, he was worth 0.8 WAR between 114 starting innings and 21 relief innings. Burnett’s first season of arbitration eligibility was the 2003 campaign, which he spent almost entirely on the DL with Tommy John surgery. This did follow a 2002 campaign that was the best of his career at that point.

While Burnett and Pavano were both kept until they left as free agents and the Marlins collected their compensatory draft picks, the reason for this was obvious: neither player had accumulated enough trade value to be worth sending to another team. Both were older than Johnson at the same stage of their arbitration curve; Burnett and Pavano were both 27 years old after their respective first years of arbitration, while Johnson is 26. Neither player at that point had built as good a resume as Johnson. Burnett had come off an injury after a dominating year, and Pavano had never looked that good until 2004. Johnson is leagues ahead of both, and with the team control remaining, his value is far greater.

I think it is in the Marlins’ best interest to at least consider offers for Johnson. To state that the team has an option of keeping JJ for draft picks and letting him walk in free agency is absurd, and the comparisons to Pavano and Burnett before him just do not apply. Johnson would command a huge amount of return for his services in a trade, and to compare him to the other two pitchers would not do that amount of trade value justice.

Topics: Carl Pavano, Josh Johnson, Miami Marlins

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  • Joe A.

    Agree completely with you Michael. I think we’re about to find out exactly how smart the Fish front office is. JJ is 26, and willing to sign for 4 years for the kind of money that it seems only we can’t afford. That means there are 29 other teams that should be putting together their best package right now. With that kind of competition the Marlins should get quite a haul for him….if they don’t screw it up.

  • Michael Jong

    Joe A,

    But with the rhetoric coming out of the FO, it seems like they will screw it up by not listening. To say that there is no chance that Johnson will be dealt isn’t doing the Marlins future justice. If they keep him, I’ll be OK if they then spend to make a winner next season (get a cheap lefty bat to patrol outfield/first base, get someone major league ready to play for Uggla/Cantu, that type of thing), but I know they won’t. The only good “cheap” move I’ve heard about is Jamey Carroll, and it addresses all the wrong concerns (i.e. the team thinks Coghlan is an outfielder with that bat).

    I never thought I’d be the one to champion a trade, but I’m thinking of what’s best for the future. Does anyone actually feel this team, as expected to be constructed, is a playoff-caliber team? We were a .500 ballclub last year with Dan Uggla. What can we expect from replacing him with Bonifacio?

  • Joe A.

    No, we won more game last year than projected. We were lucky. I can appreciate that the team can’t afford to swallow his contract for 4 years if he doesn’t pan out. But if that’s the case, it’s time to get the maximum value for him now when he’s coming off a career best year. It’s just frustrating that they can find the money to pay Cantu but not JJ.

  • Joe A.

    If they do trade him they better get a couple of high ceiling arms in return. When he’s gone both the major and minor league teams are going to be severely pitching starved. A trade with the Rays may be a good fit. They have a surplus of good, young, close to ready arms and JJ would make their already good rotation even better. Gotta keep up with the Joneses when your in the AL East!

    • Michael Jong

      Joe A,

      Agreed, and almost certainly the Fish would get those high ceiling arms. I doubt it would be from Tampa though, as in a year they’d be facing a similar situation. No, the team that would acquire would almost have to be a club that could lock him up long term, which means we’d be talking about the big-salary guns, unfortunately.

      And on the issue of Cantu v. JJ, it’s all in the years. In one season, Cantu will make $5M and go away, and the Marlins will say that they tried to keep as many of their parts as they could. With JJ, it’s an issue of years for pitchers, which may be a relevant argument but really comes off poorly for them in the face of years of organizational skimping.

      The fact that they now say that they won’t trade him period reflects a feeling that the Marlins could win, even though they’ll be giving away parts this offseason. It’s unlikely at best and deluded at worst.

  • JoeA.

    Michael, do you think the new stadium affects their thinking on this? If they trade either Cantu/Uggla AND Josh Johnson it will certainly be percieved as a fire sale and bring all the stadium critics back out of the woodwork.

    • Michael Jong

      Joe A,

      First off, congratulations for being the 400th comment on my blog! Not the greatest achievement, but I’m happy to see a number like that.

      I think you’re absolutely right. The team in part has to be thinking about saving face with regards to the stadium and new expectations about payroll. But the Marlins holding on to Johnson without an extension does nothing about 2012, only 2010 and 2011. I don’t really know how it would help that the team is only committed to keeping its best pitcher for two more seasons. They should consider what’s best for the long-term, not any PR standpoint.

  • JoeA.

    Hi Michael,

    This great piece at BTB certainly helps the argument that we should be trading Josh Johnson now, at the top of his market value. Prospects are worth more than compensatory picks in most cases.

    http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2009/7/20/950254/which-is-better-compensation

    • Michael Jong

      Joe A,

      I loved that article from Sky Kalkman. I often refer to it to get the values for draft picks and top prospects. Thank the research from Victor Wang for that.

      Two players did accept arb last year, and one of them at the very least fit the mold of a Kiko Calero (Darren Oliver), but Calero holds the lesser risk of the two Marlins up for arb. Still, with the Marlins being able to get rid of players if they accept arbitration, I still don’t see why they wouldn’t offer (and indeed didn’t).

      Thanks for the compliment. If I didn’t already have a plan in mind for my next year (trying to get into medical school), I definitely would have applied to the recent Baseball Operations internship the Marlins had available. I could have worked with the Gulf Coast Marlins Florida League affiliate, which would have been pretty cool.

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