Not Drinking The Kool Aid

(Or the coffee, either…)

It’s been almost 3 weeks since the Padres signed Josh Johnson.  Most observers gave the signing a ‘thumbs-up’, for some very good reasons.  Eight million for one year of a recovering pitcher, with the option of a second year at $4M should he spectacularly break down again, sounds pretty good.  It probably is good.

Cue the pessimist.  I’m having trouble wrapping my head around this as a good deal.  Mostly because I keep seeing Mark Mulder, Brandon Webb, and Mark Prior in my mind’s eye.  Let’s talk about this.

A quick recap of these three former major league pitchers.

Mark Mulder.  Mark was one of the bright stars in the Oakland A’s rotation 15 years ago.  He went 81-42 in five seasons by the bay, finishing second in the 2001 Cy Young vote.  After the St Louis Cardinals were swept out of the 2004 World Series, they felt they needed a shut-down front line pitcher, so they traded for Mark during the off-season.  Mulder won 16 games in 2005 and led that team to the NLCS.  After that, his left shoulder rapidly declined, making him very hittable.

Mark managed to pitch fairly well at the start of the 2006 season, but the wheels fell off in mid-May.  In a 28 May start at Petco, which I happened to attend, he got torched by the Padres for 8 runs in 4 1/3 innings.  That game is memorable to me because Albert Pujols hit a HR off the batter’s eye.  First time I saw someone do that at Petco.

Mulder got hammered by the Cubs, Brewers, Pirates, and White Sox after that, and ended up on the DL.  Eventually he would undergo left rotator cuff surgery, then a second surgery, then rehab, and more rehab.  Since the end of the 2006 season he has appeared in six games and thrown 12 2/3 innings.  His career was essentially over in 2010, and he entered retirement, although he’s apparently going to try a comeback for the 2014 season.

Brandon Webb.  Webb went 87-62 in seven seasons with the Diamondbacks.  He was third in the 2003 ROY voting, won the Cy Young in 2006, and was runner-up in 2007/2008.  However the wheels fell off for him as well. In 2009 he was diagnosed with bursitis in his throwing shoulder.  Webb eventually underwent rotator cuff surgery, then a second surgery, on that right shoulder.  He also attempted several comebacks, but did not pitch in the majors again after Opening Day 2009.  He retired in 2013.

Mark Prior.  Prior seemed destined for greatness when he burst onto the scene in 2002.  He and Kerry Wood carried the 2003 Cubs within 5 outs of their first World Series appearance since 1945, as close as the moribund franchise has been since WWII ended.  His delivery was considered perfect; in fact, Will Carroll extolled its virtues in Saving the Pitcher. 

Mark’s career did not have a storybook ending.  His routinely high pitch counts that 2003 season,  or his delivery (which may actually have overstressed his shoulder) probably contributed.  He collided with Marcus Giles in 2003 while Giles was running the bases, and came back quickly after the injury. That might have played a part. He took a line drive his throwing elbow courtesy of Brad Hawpe in 2005.  Either of those could have altered his mechanics.  Prior developed arm trouble in 2005 and spent lots of time on the DL.

Prior was diagnosed with a ‘loose shoulder’ after the 2006 season and spent the winter doing conditioning work to strengthen it.  The shoulder did not respond, so he opted for exploratory surgery and missed the 2007 season.  He would eventually have more surgery to correct a tear in his right shoulder.  After years of attempting to get back into the Majors, Prior finally retired yesterday.

Three really good pitchers who developed shoulder trouble and never recovered.

No, they aren’t unique.  Lots of pitchers develop arm trouble and don’t recover.  And, there is one glaring difference between these men and Josh Johnson.  Johnson has not yet had surgery on his right shoulder.  Is it a fair comparison?  I think yes.  Johnson’s had several bouts of shoulder inflammation. They started in 2011.  Josh’s inflammation cost him most of the 2011 season and part of 2012.  He also experienced forearm tightness, which sidelined him for most of last season.  So there’s something going on with his arm.

My biggest concern is that these physical issues mask a larger problem in his shoulder.  The inflammation would be emblematic of that. It mirrors what Mulder, Webb, and Prior initially experienced before having their shoulders cut open.   The forearm tightness and development of bone chips (which he had removed earlier this off-season) in his right arm could be because he’s trying to compensate for the pain in his shoulder.  If that’s the case, then removing the bone chips will help but won’t solve the initial problem.  His shoulder pain will return.  He may spend lots of time on the DL next season.  In which case, they might as well burn that $8M at second base.

I truly hope I’m wrong on this one.  I’ll be the happiest dude in the world if Josh Johnson 2014 is an 80% reprisal of Josh Johnson 2010, when he finished fifth in the Cy Young voting.  I just don’t expect his body will let him be that guy.

“Have you ever felt that somehow/you were not yourself/that your body was the same/but everything around you wasn’t right”

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  • Sure it’s a risk, but plenty of guys have gotten hurt and then come back to be the same pitcher-even if it isn’t a 50-50 proposition, have you seen a better risk of money? What if they end up with Chris Carpenter, Halladay, Strausburg or any other large number of guys to come back just fine?

  • Geoff Hancock

    There’s no question injury is concerned though I’m not sure he’s to the level of risk of these guys. But SD appears to have protected themselves if JJ spends most of 2014 on the DL. That’s the part of the contract I like the most.

    • I completely agree the way San Diego structured the contract was very smart. Don’t entirely agree JJ’s got less risk than the 3 I chose to write about. Most concerning to me is the 2-3 years of arm trouble he’s lived through. Mulder/Prior/Webb all had similar experiences before having the rotator cuff surgery, then fell off the table. JJ may already be headed down that road (I sincerely hope he’s not).

  • USMC53

    During the offseason, I have a lot more fun drinking the Kool-Aid than being rational. With that in mind, I think Josh Johnson and Ian Kennedy will return to form and supplant Kershaw as co-Cy Young winners in ’14. Go Padres!

  • ballybunion

    I see the JJ signing as taking some pressure off Luebke, Wieland, and later in the season, Kelly, none of whom have pitched for a year. They can rehab in the minors and get their sharpness back out of the public eye. Unless JJ has problems in ST, he’ll have a few starts, and he might be good all year. Otherwise, Erlin can take one spot, with Stults staying in the rotation, giving Bud two lefties. If Luebke is ready, there’s a whole other calculation, but there’s no pressure to put him in the rotation early, since he’ll be innings-restricted, like Wieland. After the last two years, Bud Black should be ecstatic that he has options, and he sure sounded like he was happy.