Prospect Retro: Josh Johnson

The Rockies and the Marlins entered the National League together back in 1993. The Rockies have Ubaldo Jimenez as a possible Cy Young contender in the coming years, and the Marlins have Josh Johnson.

 Josh Johnson was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the fourth round of the 2002 draft, out of high school in Jenks, Oklahoma. Tall and projectable at 6-7, 215, he was erratic in high school, throwing 90-92 MPH at his best, but sometimes working in just the 85-87 range. He also needed to improve his breaking ball and changeup. Considered a first-round talent six months before the draft, his stock dropped due to an erratic spring and a University of Oklahoma scholarship. He signed late and got into just 15 innings in the Gulf Coast League, posting an 11/3 K/BB with a 0.60 ERA. I didn't put him in the 2003 book, but if I had I would have rated him a Grade C prospect.

Johnson was limited to 82 innings for Greensboro in the Sally League in 2003 due to shoulder and hip injuries. He pitched okay, posting a 3.61 ERA but with a 59/29 K/BB in 82 innings; his K/IP ratio was weak for the Sally League that year, and his fastball had just mediocre velocity most of the season. I gave him a Grade C in the 2004 book, writing that "nothing really stands out about him, but there is potential."

More shoulder issues limited Johnson to 22 starts and 114 innings for Class A Jupiter in 2004. He posted a 5-12 record, but a 3.46 ERA with a 103/48 K/BB in 114 innings, allowing 124 hits. His K/IP ratio improved thanks to sharpening of his breaking ball and changeup, and he was starting to get noticed for the quality of his sinking fastball, though his velocity remained just average. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2005 book, writing that "if he avoids the doctors, a breakthrough in '05 is quite possible."

Moved up to Double-A Carolina for 2005, Johnson went 12-4, 3.87 with a 113/50 K/BB in 140 innings, allowing 139 hits. His fastball bumped up a notch into the low 90s, and he transitioned well to Double-A, even avoiding the shoulder problems which nagged him the past two seasons. He got a brief major league exposure with the Marlins that September. In the '06 book, I wrote that Johnson probably needed some Triple-A time and that his average component ratios, even with his good surface stats, were a caution flag. I gave him a Grade B- in the '06 book, stating "there is a lot to like here, but also some things to be careful about."

The Marlins ignored my advice and Johnson spent all of 2006 in the majors, pitching very well, going 12-7, 3.10 with a 133/68 K/BB in 157 innings, 136 hits allowed, a very successful rookie campaign. However, the injury bug struck in 2007. Although it was the shoulder that bothered him in the minors, in '07 his elbow gave out, necessitating Tommy John surgery. He came back extremely quickly in 2008 and went 7-1, 3.61 with a 77/27 K/BB in 87 innings. As you know, last year he went 15-5, 3.23 with a 191/58 K/BB in 209 innings, allowing 184 hits. Last year's performance was better than anything he'd done in the minors, and it earned him a fat contract this off-season.

Johnson throws harder now: 92-98 last year according to fangraphs, averaging almost 95 MPH. This is about eight MPH harder than he threw in the lower minors, making him a textbook example of a "projectable" pitcher gaining velocity as he matures physically. His slider is his main second pitch; he uses his changeup a bit less than five percent of the time. Fangraphs rates all of his pitches as above average, and he picks up a lot of grounders to go with the strong strikeout rate.

Comparable pitchers through age 25 include Rich Harden, Doc Medich, Jered Weaver, Joey Hamilton, and Chan Ho Park according to Sim Scores. I apologize for not mentioning the new 2010 PECOTA comps, but my ancient computer won't open the downloadable PECOTA files for some reason and BP doesn't have the on-line player cards up yet. 2009 PECOTA comps included Jim Beattie, Carl Pavano, Jim Lonborg, Brad Penny, Danny Haren, Matt Morris, John Lackey, and Roy Halladay.

My main concern for Johnson going forward is the possibility that the shoulder problems he had in the minors may recur. If he avoids injury and gets proper support from teammates, Johnson has the ability to be a Cy Young contender in the coming years along with Ubaldo Jimenez. Not bad for a guy who never really dominated in the minors. This is another example of how Grade C pitching prospects at the lower levels can sometimes develop into something very interesting.

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