- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Two years ago, Zack Greinke was viewed as a talented but quirky pitcher, a Cy Young winner who had mused about walking away from the game again in 2010 after walking away earlier in his career.
Now, because of a series of circumstances and events inside and outside of baseball, ranging from peaceful collective bargaining negotiation to an improving U.S. economy to the record-setting sale of the Dodgers, he is the highest-paid right-handed pitcher in baseball history.
Johnson, 28, is entering the final year of a four-year deal he signed with the Marlins and will be eligible for free agency in the fall. There are no ongoing contract talks with Toronto. "We really haven't had any conversations with the Blue Jays," said Johnson's agent, Matt Sosnick. "We've told them we're open to anything. But it seems to make sense for both of us to see how he pitches at the beginning of the year."
Yes, it does. There have been times in Johnson's career when he has been regarded as one of the most dominant right-handers in the sport, mixing 98 mph fastballs downhill before spinning sliders that veer sharply away from right-handed hitters. Johnson is 6-foot-7 and intimidating, and hitters speak of his best stuff with awe. He led the NL in ERA in 2010, at 2.30.
But Johnson has reached 200 innings only once in his career, which has been checkered with injuries. He has missed time repeatedly because of arm trouble, and, last year, his average fastball velocity sank to a career low of 92.8 mph.
Perception could change quickly, as Greinke has demonstrated. Summer of 2013 will provide opportunity for Johnson: He will be pitching in what is regarded as one of the toughest divisions in the majors, and, if he has a bounce-back season and throws well, all the circumstances might line up for him the way they did for Greinke:
1. Johnson may well be the best free agent in an otherwise lackluster market, as Greinke was.
Some of the other starting pitchers who could be headed to free agency in the fall: A.J. Burnett, Bruce Chen, Scott Feldman, Gavin Floyd, Matt Garza, Jason Hammel, Dan Haren, Tim Lincecum, Ricky Nolasco, Ervin Santana, Edinson Volquez, Barry Zito. (MLBTradeRumors has a complete list here).
2. The sport will still be early in the massive spending cycle that started this fall. Next year, the teams expect to receive the first big checks from some of the recent television contracts.
3. There will be big-market or big-money teams in position to spend -- most notably, the Chicago Cubs, who just missed out on Anibal Sanchez, and the Texas Rangers, who have had the worst winter of all of the contenders. Johnson is from Oklahoma, and pitching in Texas -- for Nolan Ryan -- likely would be attractive to him.
So there will be a lot riding on 2013 for Johnson, who is at a crossroads in his career. If arm issues hit him again, and limit his starts and his innings, that will greatly affect his market value in the fall; Johnson and Sosnick's best play might be to go for a one-year deal to re-establish value.
But if he stays healthy, restores his fastball to its previous greatness and has a big year, a season that matches his work in 2010, he will be in an exceptional position of leverage.
Hot Stove 2013
Nine other players who will have a whole lot riding on 2013, with free agency on the horizon:
2. Robinson Cano A big season could net him a $200 million contract in the fall as he hits free agency. Any regression will cost him tens of millions because he'll be 31 next October.
3. Jacoby Ellsbury He's a lot like Johnson: There is enormous respect for his talent -- and great concern about his injury history. If Ellsbury stays on the field and has a big year, he probably will eclipse the dollars that Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth and even Josh Hamilton got.
4. Carlos Ruiz The Phillies' catcher will miss the start of the season as he serves a drug suspension, then will have to rebuild his standing as one of the game's best at his position.
5. Brian McCann He'll be coming back from shoulder surgery -- sometime in May, in all likelihood -- and should have about 120 games to make his case before hitting the market.
6. Matt Garza The Cubs were poised to deal him before he got hurt before the trade deadline, and he didn't pitch after July 21. He is similar to Anibal Sanchez in a lot of ways and could get paid like him if he makes 30-plus starts next season.
7. Joel Hanrahan He is likely to be traded before the 2013 season, rival executives believe, and, with a strong season, he could position himself for a deal in the range of $25-35 million because of his experience as a closer.
8. Carlos Gomez Brewers GM Doug Melvin notes that speed guys sometime take a little longer to develop, and Gomez made progress last year, posting his best season. But he has to show even more; in particular, he needs to improve his on-base percentage, which was a career-high .305 last year.
9. David Murphy Steady and unspectacular in his production, he has long been viewed as more of a complementary piece. But Murphy had more playing time in 2012 than in any other season in his career, and he performed well, hitting .304 with a .380 on-base percentage. (He was better at home, but still good on the road. Texas doesn't have a lot of left-handed hitting, so Murphy probably is going to play a lot in 2013 and, if he has another strong season, could earn a really good three-year deal in the fall.
10. James Loney He has taken all of his mulligans, as he joins the Rays. This is probably his last shot to establish that he's a reliable run producer, and probably his last shot at setting himself up for a major payday.
Hot Stove 2012
All along, the Blue Jays have been the best possible fit for a deal for R.A. Dickey, because of the breadth of their core of prospects -- especially in their catching -- and because of their own need for someone who can pitch at the front end of their rotation. Assuming the Jays finish the Dickey deal -- and it's close, as Andy Martino writes -- their starters could line up like this:
2. Mark Buehrle
4. Ricky Romero
If they finish this deal, I think they would be the on-paper, midwinter front-runners to win the AL East.
• At a time when the Angels are likely to deal Kendrys Morales, Peter Bourjos or Mark Trumbo, I can't imagine a better fit for Morales than the Tampa Bay Rays. He is a solid on-base percentage guy, a power guy who hits from both sides of the plate, and the Rays have room for a hitter like him -- and have the prospects required to make this kind of deal.
The Angels' market for Morales will be relatively limited, too, by the perception that he is best-suited for a DH role, and presumably, the Angels would like to move him out of their division.
• The Rangers missed on R.A. Dickey, as well. Their failure to sign Josh Hamilton shouldn't affect their appeal to other players, writes Tim Cowlishaw. Finally, the Rangers are in the mix for Raul Ibanez, writes George King.
• The Tigers signed Anibal Sanchez, which solidifies their rotation and makes it all but certain that they will trade Rick Porcello; Tony Paul runs through the possibilities. The move demonstrates, again, how much Mike Ilitch wants to win a championship, writes Lynn Henning. The signing makes Detroit the favorite to win the AL Central, as Drew Sharp writes.
The Tigers are surrounded by small-market and midmarket teams in the AL Central, and they'll have a payroll in the range of $156 million.
They'll get a closer, presumably. A deal for Hanrahan makes so much sense -- because he's available and because he would cost significantly less than Rafael Soriano.
It feels like 1958 all over again with the power that has shifted to the West this year.
By the way: There are a lot of indications that this deal was done over the heads of the folks in the Angels' baseball operations department, with Arte Moreno taking the same approach George Steinbrenner often did as owner of the Yankees.
Moves, deals and decisions
3. Chris Antonetti gave an extensive interview.
4. The Cubs missed on Sanchez but showed they are willing to spend.
6. Hank Aaron was voted as the fifth-best player in the majors.
10. The Orioles, who have had a very quiet offseason, talked about Dickey.
11. The Mariners need a big bat, writes Geoff Baker.
12. Tom Hoffarth thinks the Dodgers should just stop.
13. The Padres are making little noise this offseason, writes Jay Paris.
My wife and I were both at the end of the drive to meet our third-grader as he bounced off the bus Friday afternoon. It had been a great day for him at his school, which is a half-hour drive from Sandy Hook. "I won a free throw contest in gym," he announced.
He paused at the end of his proclamation, the way speakers do when they anticipate a crowd reaction, and, after getting that, he walked spryly down the driveway, his backpack extending halfway down his legs in the back. It was clear and sunny but cool, but he hadn't bothered putting on his jacket. He was way too excited for that.
"Let me tell you how it happened, Dad," the third-grader said.
He likes storytelling.
"So, I took my first shot. ... And I missed."
"How many shots did you take?"
He ignored my question.
"Then, on the second shot ... I made it! That was one. One out of two."
Our dogs had run ahead. The third-grader was looking down as he walked, completely focused, the curls on the top of his head moving slightly as emphatic syllables bobbed his head.
"Then, on the third shot ... I missed again! One for three.
"Then, on the four shot ... I missed! It all came down to the last shot ..."
The kid is a human drumroll.
"I shot it ... it hit the front of the rim ... it rolled around ... and ... it went in!"
He explained that by making two of five, he had advanced to a contest of all kids in all gym classes in his school, and, if he gets past that, well, the next round will be at the high school. He said, "Dad, it's something I'll never forget until the day I die."
The hug lasted long enough that he looked at me suspiciously with his blue eyes, maybe wondering whether I was going to tell him to load the wood basket.
He just wanted his peanut butter ice cream, after a long and hard week of school.
We felt so fortunate to be able to give it him; at the end of a long and horrible day, our child came home.
Buster Olney writes how Josh Johnson could capitalize on his status as the top free-agent pitcher in an otherwise barren market.