Boo birds descend on new A’s closer Jim Johnson


Have you ever had a couple of bad days at a new job despite trying to make a good impression? Ever have thousands of people scream at you for making a couple of mistakes? Have you ever had an angry mob tell your bosses to send you home for the day or banish you to your former employer? Welcome to Jim Johnson‘s world.

The new Oakland A’s closer hasn’t exactly endeared himself to the home crowd during the season’s opening series. Going 0-2 while coughing up five runs in just one inning of work against the Cleveland Indians has brought the boo birds out in force and left Johnson and manager Bob Melvin facing some hard questions during post-game interviews.

The A’s haven’t even completed their first homestand and Melvin’s already fielding inquiries about whether he’s worried about his closer and if the next save opporunity might go to someone else in the bullpen. And Johnson’s been stuck in front of his locker most nights with reporters crowded around him as he faces the music after another tough loss.

It’s a brutal start to Johnson’s career with the A’s, which promised to be brief even before his implosions on Monday and Wednesday. Seeing the small-budget A’s make an offseason trade with the Baltimore Orioles for a $10 million closer to replace All-Star Grant Balfour was a surprising move but it’s probably a given that Oakland will let Johnson walk as soon as he hits free agency after this season.

Despite the rough outings this week, Johnson hasn’t tried to duck any questions thrown his way after each defeat. As he told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle last night, “We should be 3-0. I’ll take the blame for that. But if I sulk and pout, it doesn’t do anyone any good.”

In his two games against the Indians, Johnson has shown good velocity with his fastball regularly hitting 94 to 95 miles per hour on the radar gun. But location has been more of an issue as the closer’s signature power sinker hasn’t been catching the bottom of the strike zone with the consistency or movement that’s helped him lead the American League in saves the past two seasons. Last night it seemed like every ball Johnson left up in the zone was tagged for a hit by Cleveland’s batters.

The obvious question on everyone’s mind is what’s wrong with Johnson. For his part, the new A’s closer sounded just as baffled by his recent performances as anyone else. “I’ve got to be me. I’ve got to trust in what I’m doing, that it’s going to get better,” Johnson told Carl Steward of the Bay Area News Group after Wednesday’s game. “Something’s going to click. That’s how this game works out. You go through slumps, and just one thing can get you going, and you’re off to the races.”

For the moment, it looks like the A’s coaching staff and Johnson have a puzzle to solve. Is Johnson wilting under the pressure of impressing a new team in front of hostile fans? Is he putting too much pressure on himself to have a near-perfect season as he enters free agency? Is Johnson overthrowing the ball, gaining impressive velocity at the expense of the natural sinking action on his fastball? Is he uncomfortable working with new catcher Derek Norris? Does Johnson lack faith in the ability of Oakland’s middle infielders to turn his groundballs into rally-killing double plays. Is he disgusted by playing in a ballpark where sewage leaks into the dugout and clubhouse? Does he feel uncomfortable pitching in the team’s distinctive white shoes?

Who knows? Feel free to join the overreaction party and venture a guess.

The more you think about what might be throwing off Johnson’s performance, the more complicated things can get. But the answer to what’s behind his early struggles may be as simple as a guy having a couple of bad days at work despite his best efforts. Baseball is hard and bad days can happen to the best players.

With three games down and 159 to go, the A’s and Johnson have to hope that his rough start is just a minor bump in the road, because in a vastly improved AL West, the margin of error for winning the division promises to be dangerously slim this year.

Daric Barton gives the doubters a little fuel for the fire

Last night the Oakland A’s lost to the Cleveland Indians, 2-0, extending their streak of season-opening defeats to 10 consecutive years. Oakland failed to come up with key hits with men on base and new closer Jim Johnson coughed up 2 runs in his debut with the A’s which pretty much sealed the team’s fate on Monday.

But the frustrating baserunning of Daric Barton on Josh Donaldson‘s near-homer/world’s-longest single was obviously a key point of frustration for the A’s after the game. Barton’s suprising failure to score kept the A’s off the board when they desperately needed a run to take a late lead in the season opener.

No one seemed particularly shy about how they felt in post-game interviews:

The palpable tension all around makes for fun reading and Barton’s gaffe just adds fuel to the fire for the segment of fans who never wanted to see him make the club out of spring training. In Barton’s defense, he made some slick plays at first base and he reached base twice while driving up pitch counts with his signature patient approach.

Ultimately, if the A’s came up with one or two key hits and Johnson shut down the Indians in the ninth inning last night, Barton’s misadventures on the basepaths probably wouldn’t be a topic of discussion after the game. But expectations are high in Oakland this year as the team pursues a third division title in a row and little mistakes like the one Barton made last night can add up by the end of the year, costing the A’s a few valuable wins when there’s little margin for error in the American League playoff chase.

If Barton really wants to prove the doubters wrong he didn’t do himself any favors with his baserunning last night.

Knee-jerk reaction: The A’s trade for Jim Johnson

 

Meet your new A's closer, Jim Johnson.

Meet your new A’s closer, Jim Johnson.

There are special moments for thoughtful reflection about new developments with the Oakland A’s … and then there are moments like these where I only have time for a quick post.

Wow.

This afternoon the A’s shelled out $22 million for Scott Kazmir and by the end of the night they followed that up by trading for Orioles closer Jim Johnson and his $10.8 million salary.  And all it cost them was former-top-prospect-turned-forgotten-man Jemile Weeks.

Do I love this deal?  Yeah, I kinda love this deal right now. I may only like it in a few weeks and I may hate it in a few months. But right now, for the sake of a knee-jerk reaction I love it.

Jemile Weeks is getting a fresh start in Baltimore.

Jemile Weeks is getting a fresh start in Baltimore.

Oakland filled its hole at closer without shelling out around $20 million for a free agent over the next couple of years and all they had to give up was Weeks.  I was definitely a Weeks fan but for some reason his stock seemed to crash within the A’s organization and swapping him out for a proven closer won’t have any meaningful impact on Oakland’s infield next year.  The Sacramento River Cats may have a hard time without him, but the big club will be just fine.

There was a time when the thought of general manager Billy Beane shelling out $10 million for a closer would have seemed insane.  But these days there’s an insane amount of national TV revenue flowing through every franchise and $10 million isn’t as big of a deal as it used to be.

Just sit back and see what free agent closers Joe Nathan, Joaquin Benoit and Grant Balfour get this offseason.  By the time it’s all said and done, $10.8 million for one year of Jim Johnson will look perfectly reasonable.  It may even look like a savvy move by Beane.

Is Johnson the second coming of Mariano Rivera in his prime?  Will he make die-hard A’s fans forget Dennis Eckersley? Uh, no.  Not even close.  This is a guy who suffered through some nasty rough patches last year and was arguably on the verge of losing his closing gig in Baltimore at times.  I see Johnson more in the mold of Keith Foulke and Billy Koch, closers who fell out of favor with their former teams only to find a fresh start with winning teams in Oakland.

At a bare minimum, taking on Johnson’s $10.8 million contract gets you out of the free agent feeding frenzy and buys you time to relax and let Sean Doolittle develop a second pitch and find a way to iron out Ryan Cook’s mechanics over the next year.  After 2014 you can cut Johnson loose, have an extra $10 million in payroll flexibility and hopefully Doolittle or Cook are ready to take over the ninth inning duties in 2015 for next to nothing in salary.

The best-case scenario is that Johnson regains his 2012 form and the A’s ride his power sinker deep into the 2014 playoffs with Dan Otero, Cook and Doolittle combining to give Oakland one of the game’s best bullpens.

Of course, Johnson’s elbow or shoulder could spontaneously combust at some point next season because he’s a pitcher and that’s what happens to guys who make their living throwing a baseball really hard over and over and over. Or Johnson could lose his mojo as he creeps toward the wrong side of 30 and simply pitch his way out of the ninth inning.  That would leave Beane with $10 million in dead weight on his roster and if Jemile Weeks figures out how to hit again while leading the American League in steals for the first-place Baltimore Orioles I guess that’s right around the time I start to hate this trade.

But for now, I couldn’t be happier with the A’s throwing some money around to plug a glaring hole on their roster without sacrificing any major contributors from their back-to-back AL West championship teams.

Oakland’s payroll took a steep downturn after they traded away Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey and Trevor Cahill and this is how they reap the rewards of having a good, young, cheap winning team.  There’s plenty of payroll flexibility to add a Jim Johnson without sacrificing anything of value that can help you win right now.

A's general manager Billy Beane is sitting pretty as the winter meetings roll around.

A’s general manager Billy Beane is sitting pretty as the winter meetings roll around.

Beane’s heading into this month’s winter meetings with his biggest offseason problems solved.  Bartolo Colon’s been replaced with Kazmir and Balfour’s been replaced with Johnson and by the end of 2014 I think those moves will stand out as upgrades over whatever Colon and Balfour do with their new teams.  Just about everyone else from last season’s club is coming back and Beane still has Brett Anderson as a potential trade chip if an offer he can’t refuse comes along.

It’s been so long since the A’s shelled out this much cash in such a short period of time that I won’t sit here and complain about them spending $10 million for a luxury item like a proven closer.   Every team in MLB is so filthy rich right now that it’s gotten to the point that $10 million is just $10 million … even in Oakland.