Signing pitcher Josh Johnson to a one-year, $8 million contract was viewed as a savvy offseason move for the Padres. If the right-hander stayed healthy, San Diego could have an ace-caliber starter for about one-third the price of what a No. 1 starter typically costs on the open market nowadays.
Unfortunately, Johnson won’t have thrown a single regular-season pitch for the Padres this year, as he’ll undergo Tommy John surgery this week to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. This will be the second time he’s had the procedure in his nine-year major league career The 30-year-old developed a strained flexor muscle during the spring after making four starts. He compiled a 3.38 ERA with 10 strikeouts in 13.1 innings of Cactus League play.
Of course, there was a reason Johnson was available at such a price and willing to sign a one-year deal. No team was going to offer a long-term contract to a pitcher with his injury history. Johnson was limited to only 16 starts last year, cutting his season short in August because of a strained forearm. He also missed all of May due to triceps inflammation. Ultimately, Johnson finished with a 2-8 record, 6.20 ERA and 83 strikeouts in 81.1 inning.
In 2011, a shoulder injury restricted Johnson to nine starts. His previous Tommy John surgery occurred in 2007. Johnson has been injured so frequently that it’s easy to joke about him going down yet again. But there’s really nothing funny about a pitcher continuing to get hurt.
The Padres can bring Johnson back next season, holding a $4 million club option that was triggered if he made fewer than seven starts this year. Perhaps the team will decide Johnson is worth taking another chance on at that kind of price, depending on how well his recovery and rehab progress. However, San Diego may just decide to move on. The rotation is performing nicely with a 3.12 ERA that ranks sixth in the NL. Additionally, three other pitchers on the roster are also recovering from elbow surgery.
Casey Kelly had the Tommy John procedure last year and is working his way back to pitching this season. Joe Wieland underwent arthroscopic surgery in mid-March. And Cory Luebke will miss his second straight season after tearing a UCL that had already been repaired by Tommy John surgery. He had a second procedure in March.
The Giants, Dodgers and Pirates also showed interest in Johnson during the offseason, reportedly making bigger offers than the Padres. The possibility of Johnson returning to his 2009-10 form is enticing. In 2009 (his first full season after that initial Tommy John surgery), he went 15-5 with a 3.23 ERA in 33 starts. Johnson threw 209 innings, striking out 191 batters. The following year, Johnson led the NL with a 2.30 ERA while posting an 11-6 record and 186 strikeouts in 183.2 innings.
But after two Tommy John surgeries and 16 appearances in two seasons, Johnson could have to settle for a minor league deal next year.