Josh Johnson: Should we pay him and how much?


Recently, Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald made a quick mention about how the Marlins have a multi-year deal in the cards for starting pitcher Josh Johnson. The Marlins seem to be genuinely interested in this effort, but it seems that the path won’t be so easy. Apparently, Johnson’s agent Matt Sosnick says his client will not accept less than a market deal for the talented fireballing right hander.

What are the Marlins to do in that case? What is a market deal for Johnson and will the Marlins even approach an offer like that? I used FanGraphs, some projecting, and some common sense to find out.

Market Value

This concept that the Marlins will have to pay “market value” for Johnson’s services were he to be extended is absurd. There is simply too much on the side of the Marlins’ in this case that would prevent that from being necessary.

1) Johnson’s only entering his second year of arbitration, so if the Fish were to extend him, there would simply be no need for them to pay a rate far above the rate they would figure to pay in arbitration those first two years. A market rate would be well beyond what the Marlins would have to pay for Johnson’s arbitration salaries, and there would be simply no incentive or precedent for that type of pay.

2) According to FanGraphs, Johnson was worth 5.5 WAR this season, translating into $24.6M in monetary value in the market. I’ve done my own figures and gotten totals between 5.6 WAR and 6.1 WAR depending on the methodology. The Marlins would most certainly not be paying that kind of market value for Johnson over a four-year deal.

So what is he worth?

That total is a one-year number, subject to the fluctuations in play of any given season. JJ is likely not the pitcher we saw this season, based also on his past performances. To find out what we could expect from JJ, you’d have to do some sort of projection, which is what I’m here for, sort of.

Now, pitcher projection and regressing has been a challenge for me. I’ve done a lot of stuff for position players and am pretty comfortable with what I have come up with for the projections for various Marlins players. For pitchers, I’ve yet to find a methodology I liked. Because of that, I’ve decided to do a pseudo-Marcels projection for Johnson here. The directions I (mostly) followed are shown here, courtesy of Tom Tango. I differentiate in using a 5/4/3/2 to encompass all of Johnson’s career and using 400 batters faced of the league average for regression. Now, I’m fairly certain that regressing strikeouts and walks to 400 BF is probably a bit too high, and regressing HR or HR/FB to 400 PA is maybe a bit low, but this is a Marcels-like projection, so I won’t get too hyped up about it.

What was the result? Surprisingly, by going that far back into Johnson’s career, I got a projected 3.46 FIP. I guessed at a total of 190 innings for Johnson, giving him a projected WAR of 4.1. If you took that at this year’s free agent WAR rate, you’d get a total of $18.45M in value.

That number is also too steep for the Marlins’ price, but I suspect that Johnson’s agent is simply posturing. There is no way they could suggest that Johnson should expect to earn anything close to this value from the Marlins. The typical 40/60/80 rule of thumb for arbitration values would suggest the Marlins would expect to pay $11M for Johnson in 2010 based on this projection. However, that’s not my forte, but Lou over at SoFlaMarlins has a nice breakdown regarding JJ’s options in arbitration or in an extension. The comparison between Johnson and Zack Greinke fits very nicely (though Greinke is a good deal better than Johnson) in terms of typically tracked stats.

My opinion? I think the Marlins showed the type of long term contract the team would be willing to sign when the club inked Hanley Ramirez to his five-year deal. The contract Lou proposes in that link is very similar to what Ramirez is set to make over the life of his deal. I would venture that the Marlins could be willing to push a deal a bit higher than Greinke’s lowballed deal. It would not surprise me to see the Fish sign Johnson to a four-year, $46M deal that breaks down as such:

2010: $6.5M
2011: $8.5M
2012: $14.5M
2013: $16.5M

This is very similar to what Lou prescribed, and I essentially endorse either opinion. His work was heavily done by comparing common statistics between various young starters, so if you needed to come up with a sure-fire answer, go with his. In any case, the Marlins would likely be paying close to a typical arbitration value in the first two seasons, paying slightly more than what he might expect (closer to $5M and $7M in 2010 and 2011 respectively) then being paid around market value his following two years. Not bad for a young starter coming off of Tommy John surgery, and I suspect if a deal similar to the ones both Lou and I have shown is offered, Johnson would be hard-pressed not to take it and go to arbitration.