With baseball's lowest projected team payroll at $28 million, the thrifty Florida Marlins are counting on their young, talented core to carry them through the season once again without much outside help. Given the organization's stubbornness to add salary for a quick fix, the Marlins have a small margin for error when it comes to injuries in their pursuit of a pennant. The Marlins suffered a significant blow when they announced March 6 that starting pitcher Josh Johnson would miss at least two months of the regular season due to an irritated ulnar nerve in his right biceps. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound right-hander was arguably the National League's finest rookie pitcher in 2006 after going 12-7 with a 3.10 earned run average. Johnson was slated to be the team's second starter after Dontrelle Willis prior to the news.
The ulnar nerve, where Johnson is feeling discomfort, runs down the back of the elbow on the inside and provides feeling to the small and ring fingers. The ulnar nerve is also responsible for providing sensation to some arm muscles in the forearm and hand. This type of ailment can throw a pitcher's mechanics out of sink because the hand, forearm and muscles don't work together as smoothly and the pitcher reverts to poor throwing habits to compensate for the pain.
The good news: Johnson hasn't shown any bone, muscle or ligament damage during medical examinations in which he was evaluated by a nerve specialist and by an orthopedic guru, Dr. James Andrews. Johnson has been told his injury is similar to an elbow ailment that plagued Los Angeles Dodgers starter Brad Penny during the final two months of the 2004 season. Penny returned the following season without going under the knife.
The most worrisome aspect of Johnson's setback is that he hasn't been throwing at full strength since September of 2006. Johnson was forced to miss the final three weeks of his rookie season after dealing with forearm stiffness. The forearm stiffness arose after then-manager Joe Girardi sent Johnson back out to the mound after an 82-minute rain delay September 12. Johnson doesn't believe Girardi's managerial decision is the root of Johnson's current woes, although privately some team sources have hinted that they believe otherwise.
The Marlins' current plan is to rest Johnson for a month and hopefully have him back in the big league rotation by early June. If Johnson feels no pain when he resumes throwing in a month, the early June target date is a realistic goal for return. If the ulnar nerve is still inflamed, there's a chance Johnson might be shelved for the entire regular season. A surgical procedure could be needed to release the ulnar nerve in order to relieve the pressure. As of mid-March, the best case scenario is Johnson giving the Marlins four months of healthy pitching this season.
Even with a clean slate of health, Johnson was due for regression in his earned run average entering his sophomore season. His 2006 peripherals were good, but were not reflective of a premier earned run average that would've tied him for third in the National League (Johnson fell five innings short of qualifying for the ERA title). Johnson's 1.30 WHIP and 3.90 BB/9 ratio demonstrate his need to refine his command to become an ace, but he was difficult to hit for the most part last season. He put up solid marks by limiting opposing batters to a .236 batting average and fanned an average of 7.62 hitters per nine innings. Opposing hitters had a tough time picking up his deceiving low-to-mid 90s fastball that comes at them on a downward plane from Johnson's 6-foot-7 frame.
Since his health status is in limbo, it's difficult to make an accurate forecast on what Johnson is capable of doing this season. A 100-inning season might be a successful year given what is known now. In spite of Johnson's elbow issues, the fact he throws half of his innings at Dolphin Stadium is a feather in the cap of fantasy players who have him on their squad. Dolphin Stadium is one of the friendliest pitchers' parks in baseball and the venue makes any hurler who throws there worthy of fantasy consideration. Fantasy owners wary of the injury woes and the sophomore jinx questions that surround Johnson should temper their fears knowing Dolphin Stadium may offset much of the risk.
The Marlins have several candidates, including pitchers Sergio Mitre, Yusmeiro Petit, Wes Obermueller, Chris George and Jose Garcia, to become the team's fifth starter while Johnson is out. Mitre (shoulder) is the frontrunner, if he's healthy. He appears to be pain-free in his recovery from a shoulder injury. Petit is the most intriguing, because he was a top prospect and has put together a solid spring. None are fantasy-worthy considerations at this point in mixed leagues, although Petit deserves late-round consideration in NL-Only leagues because of his talent.
Johnson might still be worthy of consideration in all formats, but not as highly as he would've gone before this news. He's an intriguing but risky selection in the late rounds of MLB universe drafts where owners have the luxury of utilizing a disabled list slot on him and gaining an extra player in the process. If fantasy owners only have one DL spot, his acquisition is questionable because it's likely that owners will need that spot at some point for another player on their roster. In such situations, his value is as a final-round flier, and he may not deserve drafting at all. Instead owners might be better served to monitor his progress and stash him at an early point in the season, if signs are positive. With more than one, it certainly seems worth the gamble. He goes later in the last third of drafts, but his stock is falling. There are no guarantees about his performance when he returns. Penny was able to come back and post an ERA of 3.41 or lower in the first three months of his 2005 season, so there is reason for optimism, though.
His value is probably two or three rounds higher in MLB keeper leagues due to the fact that he's only 23 years young and has ace potential. Johnson is an early-to-mid-teens value in National League-only leagues and a good risk selection for a squad that has missed the boat on premium starting pitching. Every fantasy player should keep in mind there is a possibility that Johnson doesn't pitch a meaningful game all season.
About Chris Hadorn
Chris Hadorn has covered minor league and amateur prospects for more than a decade. He writes for San Diego's North County Times and has been a KFFL fantasy baseball contributor since 2006.
Don't miss these great reports....