Phillies offseason targets: Johnson, Hughes

Phillies offseason targets: Johnson, Hughes

Phightin Words: Filling out the pitching rotation

November 14, 2013, 6:00 pm
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Josh Johnson went 2-8 in 16 starts last season with a 6.20 ERA and 1.66 WHIP.

Over the next several weeks we’ll unveil a list of potential free agents and trade targets the Phillies could pursue this offseason, one in which they’ll need to plug holes behind the plate, in the corner outfield and, most importantly, on the pitching staff.

On Wednesday we looked at a safe, reliable starting pitcher with little upside in Bronson Arroyo (see story). Today, we examine two younger, high-risk, high-reward hurlers:

Josh Johnson

Age: 29

2012-13 stats: 10-22 record, 4.52 ERA in 47 starts, 1.39 WHIP, 8.2 K/9

Most recent contract: Four years, $39 million

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Phil Hughes

Age: 27

2012-13 stats: 20-27, 4.65 ERA in 61 starts, 1.6 HR/9, 3.3 K/BB

Most recent contract: One year, $7.15 million

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A pair of reclamation projects here. Johnson, the former ace of Miami, went 2-8 with a 6.20 ERA in 16 starts with the Blue Jays last season. He was a major disappointment in his contract year.

Hughes was a woeful 4-14 with a 5.29 ERA for the Yankees in 2013. His opponents hit .293 with an .832 OPS. Lefties had a .298 batting average and .354 OBP off him. At Yankee Stadium, he went 1-10 and allowed 17 homers in 78 innings. U-G-L-Y.

But both of these pitchers have talent. They just picked bad years to not show it.

Phillies fans are quite familiar with Johnson. He started 16 games against them from 2005-12 -- several notable ones came vs. Roy Halladay -- and posted a 3.36 ERA. He was close to unhittable from 2009-11 and then fell off a cliff.

Health is always a concern with JJ. He’s missed 89 starts to injury since 2007, or 12.7 per season. Hard to commit a long-term deal to a pitcher with a history of shoulder problems coming off a down year.

For those reasons, Johnson’s deal in free agency will almost certainly be for one year. We’re looking at something like one-year, $8 million with incentives based on starts and innings that bring the deal to $12-14 million. Face it ... if you get 30 starts out of Josh Johnson, you’d be willing to pay eight figures for it.

Therein lies the problem for the Phillies. If they were to sign Johnson, they’d either not get their money’s worth because of missed starts, or pay that hefty one-year salary and then not retain his rights. At that point, Johnson would have reestablished his value and be in line for perhaps a four-year deal. Would a team with as many payroll commitments as the Phillies be willing to give him that long-term offer?

Johnson already has a number of reported suitors, including the Royals, who would like to do with Johnson what they did with Ervin Santana last offseason. They bought low on Santana after a down year and he excelled, and now he’s seeking $90 million-plus. That’s just how it works.

With Hughes, the youngest starting pitcher on the market, the story is a bit different. He’s never had the kind of success Johnson had from 2009-11, and he’s fielded questions about his fastball for several years. First it was diminishing velocity, then it was the overall flatness of the pitch.

Hughes should be able to thrive in a big ballpark. He’s a flyball pitcher -- 46 percent of his career balls in play have been in the air -- and that played terribly at the short porches of Yankee Stadium. Citizens Bank Park is bigger, but not by much.

Hughes, too, is in line for a one-year deal, and if he signs it with a team like the Padres or Mariners or Mets -- a team that plays in a pitcher-friendly park -- he could have the type of success that was expected when the Yankees drafted him in the first round.

The link between the Phils and Arroyo suggests they’re seeking reliability from a free-agent starting pitcher. It makes sense -- they’ve been ravaged by injuries in the rotation the last two seasons. That would seem to push Johnson and Hughes out of the picture, even if they have more upside and might be more worthwhile than Arroyo to a team that needs to luck into a best-case scenario or two.