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Johnson helps turn around Jays' fortunes

6/19/2013

The Toronto Blue Jays are turning their disappointing season around, and certainly the starting pitching has been a key factor in their seven-game winning streak. On Monday, right-hander Josh Johnson, unreliable for health and performance in 2013 after an average 2012, delivered his top outing of the season with 7 1/3 shutout innings and his first double-digit strikeout game since his final start of 2010. On Tuesday, mostly unknown right-hander Esmil Rogers continued his ridiculous streak, beating the Colorado Rockies with 6 2/3 strong innings. Rogers has permitted four earned runs over 30 1/3 innings since May 12 for a cool 1.18 ERA. If only we could get that kind of consistency from R.A. Dickey!

It’s understandable that many fantasy owners are tired of waiting for Johnson to thrive, but the former Miami Marlins ace showed Monday what the fuss is potentially all about. Many fantasy owners have allowed either considerable damage to team ERA and WHIP to continue or just been unfortunate, and at this point those owners really shouldn’t be adding the likes of Jeff Locke, Mike Leake and Scott Feldman, where there is, sorry to burst bubbles, obvious regression in ERA and WHIP pending. Rather, it’s time to take chances on high-ERA options with upside. Johnson certainly fits that mold.

Originally an 11th-round choice in ESPN live drafts, Johnson is a free agent in more leagues than he’s owned, which isn’t surprising. Even now, after his ERA dropped from 5.40 to 4.38 Monday, it’s a bit of a hard sell for some. Then again, Johnson was awesome in 2010 and 2011. In April 2011, he delivered a 0.88 ERA over six starts, and it was all legit. Blessed with a mid-90s fastball he spots with a downhill plane since he’s an imposing 6-foot-7, a hard slider and in the past two seasons a developing curveball, Johnson can overpower hitters. On Monday, Johnson finally looked like an ace, and his June ERA over three outings is 1.82.

Health, of course, is the key. Johnson was recently dealing with an injured triceps as well as a finger blister but told reporters he’s finally comfortable. Let’s remember it’s not always so easy adjusting from the NL to the AL. If Johnson dominates the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday, it might be too late to add him even in the 10- and 12-team leagues, so why not get ahead of the game in case a really nice 10-game streak is coming? Sure, the risk of injury will always be there, because he’s started 30 games in a season only twice, but the reward is also there. He was a top-10 starting pitcher a few years back, and even in his ordinary 2012, when he posted a 3.81 ERA and 1.28 WHIP over 31 starts with a lower strikeout rate than normal, he would have been a top-50 pitcher with any run support.

As for Rogers, it’d be awfully surprising if his 2012 Kris Medlen impression continued, and Tuesday was merely his fourth start of the season. Still, he’s always had legit stuff, it was just hard to tell when he played half his games at Coors Field. Rogers thrived out of the Cleveland Indians' bullpen last season and has starting experience. On Tuesday, Rogers didn’t permit any hits through five innings. He’s not piling on the strikeouts, but there’s AL-only value here.

Before Monday, I wouldn’t have expected Rogers to stick in the rotation for long, but then right-hander Brandon Morrow tested his forearm strain in a rehab outing and it didn’t go well. Morrow, a major strikeout option who finally delivered a strong ERA and WHIP last season, was hit hard for High-A Dunedin on Monday, and it’s likely he had a health setback. More information should be pending this week, but his fantasy owners shouldn’t expect a June return. At this point, Johnson is the safer bet.

On the hitting side, shortstop Jose Reyes began his much-awaited rehab assignment for his severe ankle sprain in that same Monday game for Class A Dunedin, getting a couple of hits in five innings, then was the designated hitter Tuesday night, getting one single in five at-bats. The organization says it’s not rushing him, even though the original timetable on Reyes’ return was closer to the All-Star break, but he’ll move to higher minor league levels later this week. Some fantasy owners avoided Reyes, a third-rounder on average in ESPN drafts, because of the concern of him playing regularly on artificial turf. Like his former Miami teammate Johnson, Reyes is not known for his durability, but he can also make a major impact for fantasy owners hitting for average, scoring runs and stealing bases. Now is a good time to trade for Reyes, as he could certainly be a top-five middle infielder the rest of the season.

One more injured Blue Jay to follow is third baseman Brett Lawrie, still recovering from a sprained left ankle. Lawrie, starting to redefine the term brittle, has yet to begin a rehab assignment, but it’s still possible he’ll return this month. That’s obviously a good thing, but I admit my expectations for Lawrie are quite a bit lower than they were two months ago, and clearly one year ago. As disappointing as his 2012 campaign was, he managed double digits in home runs and stolen bases. Lawrie must make more contact and lower the strikeout rate on his current season numbers, and, of course, he needs to go more than a week without getting hurt. He’s capable of enticing numbers, though.