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.