Jim Johnson is not a bad pitcher. Honest. He's having a nightmare of a season, but he is most definitely talented. Now, that doesn't mean that I want him pitching important innings in close games -- even good players can go on slumps in which they are not their normal fantastic selves, and at those times a shrewd manager should avoid putting them in positions to monumentally fail and cost their teams wins. But when you have a good player who is performing poorly and who possesses an untradeable contract, you may as well try to find a role in which he can contribute in some way.
For Johnson, I believe that role is long relief. Sure, spending $10 million on a mop-up man sounds silly on the surface, but the money is already spent and the player is here now; you may as well try to derive value from him.
Here's the way I see it. Johnson isn't going anywhere unless he gets hurt, at least as long as he continues to sprinkle good outings in with his bad ones. The A's have a crowded bullpen as it is, and they have wisely determined to keep one spot for a long man at all times. Johnson debuted in the Majors as a starter, so at one point in his professional career he was tasked with throwing lots of innings at a time. Theoretically, he pitches to contact and gets lots of ground balls, which is a great way to cut through innings efficiently when you're trying to eat them in great quantity for the sake of the team. And finally, he's the last guy any of us want to see in a close game, so reserving him for mop-up duty is a great place to hide him while still getting something out of him.
Eric O'Flaherty will be back at some point, and probably relatively soon. If I had to guess, I'd say that current long man Jeff Francis will get the boot when he is activated. O'Fats is expected to serve as a reliable short reliever (or even a set-up man, if things go well), so he won't be sliding into Francis' role on the roster; therefore, a new long reliever must be identified. With Doolittle, Gregerson, Otero, Cook, and Abad locked into spots, and O'Fats taking the sixth one, that leaves the A's with a clear choice: Keep Johnson for multi-inning outings, or cut him in favor of someone else to perform that duty. Unless you think that Fernando Rodriguez or Joe Savery or Evan Scribner will do an appreciably better job in that role than will Johnson, then why make a switch? Especially since, whereas those guys can shuttle back and forth to Sacramento as needed, once Johnson is gone he's not coming back and a legitimate arm is gone from the equation for the rest of the year?
On Saturday, Johnson did come in for extended duty. He pitched two solid innings but was unable to get through a third; of course, if it hadn't been the bottom of the 14th inning he may have been allowed to work out of his own jam. It came as a surprise to me that it was one of the longest outings of his career; other than the start he made in his MLB debut in 2006, this was only the second time he'd faced 12 batters at a time and his 45 pitches were the most of his MLB career other than that aforementioned start.
But hey, it worked. He recorded seven outs, and could have gotten an eighth out if Garrett Jones' weak grounder had gone at a defender instead of finding no-man's land for an infield hit. Is there a good reason why Johnson can't be tasked with throwing 40-50 pitches in a game when the starter got knocked out early? Or when the A's took a 10-run lead and just needed to piece together enough relief innings to finish things out? Saturday was his third straight multi-inning outing and the sixth time this year he's completed at least two frames. In those last three, he's allowed one run on six hits in 6⅓ innings with five strikeouts and two walks. Not terrible at all, especially compared with his 5.14 season ERA and 5.4 walks per nine innings.
If Johnson wasn't making $10 million, there is a good chance that he'd be gone already. Perhaps his All-Star track record alone would have saved him until this point, but that's no guarantee. As long as he's going to be here, there's no point in having him waste a roster spot just to sit around and throw a lone inning now and then. Give him the designated long man role, a job that needs to be done by someone anyway, and make room for a sixth reliever who can be trusted to protect close leads. Armed with a new purpose that better suits his current abilities (or relative lack thereof), perhaps Johnson's nightmare season can have a happy ending after all.