Oakland Athletics Should Learn Lessons From Jim Johnson Deal, Monitor Rich Hill
Flash back to the winter of 2013. The Oakland Athletics just came off of a tremendously successful 96-66 season. Although their postseason ended in yet another ALDS loss to the Detroit Tigers, the team still had a bright outlook for 2014. Most of their key pieces that made 2013 a success were expected to return, and the sentiment was that the club was just a few pitching tweaks away from transforming from a good team into a great team.
The front office was searching for a new closer to fill the shoes of Grant Balfour, who had just completed an all-star season while setting the record for most consecutive saves in Athletics franchise history (albeit over two seasons). Sean Doolittle did just complete a terrific season, and was certainly the A’s best reliever not named Balfour, but he had not been a major part of the 9th inning discussion at that point. With no other existing bullpen pieces ready to assume the closer’s position, Billy Beane and company looked outside the organization for late-inning help.
In a rare high-profile signing, Oakland brought in former Baltimore Orioles closer Jim Johnson, who had just netted 101 saves over the two previous seasons (more saves than any other pitcher over that time period). The A’s paid $10 million for one year of Johnson, as they thought for sure he was the late-inning punch-out that the team needed in order to be a stiffer post-season competitor.
Johnson didn’t look particularly great in spring training, but he did in fact have a better spring showing than he did the previous two seasons. It seemed evident he would be a classic case of ignoring the virtually useless spring training stats. After all, 101 saves couldn’t lie.
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But this time, those saves did lie.
The Coliseum was electric on March 31, 2014. The defending American League West champions started the season at home in a bout with the Cleveland Indians. Sonny Gray would make his first opening day start, and it was a beautiful six-inning shutout with seven strikeouts, followed by two scoreless innings of Luke Gregerson and Doolittle. Could the A’s new closer keep the 0-0 game scoreless in the ninth? This was the debut moment of the A’s new $10 million pitcher.
Johnson opened with a five-pitch walk, but it was forgivable; it’s understandable that a new pitcher may have first-appearance jitters. But then David Murphy knocked a base hit into right field. And then Yan Gomes was hit by a pitch. The $10 million closer just loaded the bases without getting any outs. Two runs later, Fernando Abad replaced the new closer and uneventfully recorded the remaining outs.
That game was a microcosm of what would be the remainder of Johnson’s 2014 season. By the end of May, he had logged 22.0 innings and was fighting to keep his ERA in single-digits. He lost the closer’s role long before that point, and was forced to watch as Doolittle started cruising his way to an All-Star appearance in that position.
The final straw was on July 23, when the A’s hosted the Houston Astros. The Athletics took a 9-2 lead into the 8th inning, and trusted Johnson to handle the incredibly low-leverage situation. Even with a seven run lead, the beleaguered reliever gave up two runs himself, and was responsible for two more base runners that scored after he was taken out later that inning.
The next day, Johnson was designated for assignment. He was released a week later, $10 million in hand.
The reason that this is relevant in 2016 is that the A’s are gambling on $6 million starting pitcher, Rich Hill. When he signed a one year contract back in November, it became public that the office had guaranteed him a spot in the starting rotation. The team is obviously hoping for a Scott Kazmir-like turnaround story with Hill, but they should not be as patient with Hill as they were with Johnson if they envision being competitive this year.
Hill has already made people nervous with his shaky outings in spring training so far. In 7.2 innings through three starts (as of the time of this writing), he has only pitched 3 scoreless innings, and one of those was the first inning of his very first start where he still loaded the bases before getting out of a jam. He may only have one more start this spring to alleviate the 15.26 ERA currently hanging over his head, which is by far the worst cumulative spring performance of all Oakland starters.
Hill’s status may only be made more turbulent by the outstanding showing by top pitching prospect Sean Manaea. Billy Beane has already suggested that he would like to see Manaea in the rotation at some point late this season, but Manaea may be making the case that he should be brought up sooner than later. Manaea is, in fact, the most dominant starting pitcher in Oakland this spring, outperforming even Sonny Gray through a comparable number of innings.
Add in the fact that Chris Bassitt has also found his stride this spring, as well as the highly anticipated return of Henderson Alvarez early this season, the A’s will have a very small margin of error in their starting rotation.
There is no reason for the A’s to be as patient with Hill as they were with Johnson in 2014. Johnson’s performance in 2014 earned a -1.4 WAR, but he was surely responsible for more than just one and a half losses that season. The signs that 2014 was a lost season for Johnson were evident in the first month, and the A’s should be on high alert for those same signs in Hill this April. If Hill’s first three regular season starts are anything like his first three spring training starts, then you might see Manaea get his early call-up, or you might see Hill be the odd man out when Alvarez returns.
The A’s simply must learn from the Jim Johnson debacle, and not be afraid to release Hill if they are forced to make a choice.
And remember, Beane and Forst may have promised Hill a rotation spot, but Beane is a cut-throat executive. He’s the same executive that allegedly traded away his best player because he had the nerve to ask for time off when his body was falling apart, as well as kept a member of his bullpen from seeing his newborn son in order to be available to pitch the day of his birth. The “guaranteed rotation spot” likely means nothing to the A’s front office.