Josh Johnson is an ace, and the best is yet to come (cont.)
Just the beginning
Without Johnson, it's hard to imagine the Marlins, who opened the season with a league-low $36.8 million payroll, swimming anywhere near playoff contention, but it's August and they are in the wake of teams spending at least twice that amount. Through Tuesday, Florida is 66-59 (including 18-6 when Johnson pitches) and trails Philadelphia by seven games in the NL East. Colorado leads the Marlins by 5 1/2 games in the wild-card race.
The Marlins have used 11 different starting pitchers this season and, aside from Johnson, none of the regulars have an ERA lower than 23-year-old rookie Sean West's 4.44 mark. The 10 starters who don't go by "J.J." are 31-38 with a 5.12 ERA and average fewer than 5 2/3 innings per game.
But any time Johnson takes the mound, the Marlins are as good as baseball's best. He gave them seven quality innings in wins this summer over the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, owners of the top records in their respective leagues.
"The days he pitches, the guys know we have a real, real good chance to win the ball game or at least be in it," Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "It's just a feeling.
"You see [opposing coaches] come in ... and they always ask if Johnson is pitching in the series. When you say no, they say, 'Great.' "
The Marlins are paying just $1.4 million for that confidence this year, and Johnson has two more seasons of arbitration before he is eligible for free agency. Florida has a reputation for spending cautiously, but has a new retractable-roof stadium scheduled to open in 2012 and opened the checkbook to sign All-Star shortstop Hanley Ramirez to a six-year, $70 million deal last season.
Samson says he envisions Johnson pitching the first game at the new ballpark, which is under construction on the former site of the Orange Bowl in Little Havana, but the fanbase will not believe it until Johnson gets a long-term extension.
"Would he be an example of a player that we would think about [for an extension]? Of course," Samson said. "You just have to be prudent about it, but Josh is someone we could see on our team for a very long time."
For his part, Johnson said he wants to secure his future with the Marlins, but he is waiting for the team to initiate negotiations.
"If it happens ... I'll definitely be excited because I love it here," he said. "They've been great to me. They've told me that they want to, but we'll see."
In the meantime, Johnson will continue to build on his impressive recovery. He has thrown a career-high 165 2/3 innings this year with no resistance in his elbow, which could indicate that his body is fully restored.
Once he gets through an entire season, pitching coach Mark Wiley believes that Johnson will become even more dominant than he has been this year. Wiley expects Johnson's changeup to keep progressing, and he sees in Johnson the capacity to master a splitter in the next few years.
"Guys like that, there's still room for improvement, which would make him even more difficult," Wiley said, grinning. "And he's still going to add some stuff."