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The Strike Zone

Padres take a smart chance by signing Josh Johnson

Josh Johnson didn't have a resurgence in Toronto, but hopes his luck will change in San Diego. (Charles Krupa/AP)Josh Johnson didn't have a resurgence in Toronto, but hopes his luck will change in San Diego. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Context, Josh Johnson clearly hopes, is everything.

The soon-to-be 30-year-old righthander flopped in Toronto last season, with a 2-8 record and 6.20 ERA in 16 starts, though his high strikeout rate and other secondary statistics suggest he performed a little better than those results would suggest. Now, exactly a year after his trade from the Marlins to the Blue Jays last winter, Johnson reportedly agreed to a one-year, $8-million deal with Padres on Tuesday night, according to ESPN.com, a deal that would allow him to call pitching-friendly Petco Park his home for the 2014 season. A source confirmed the agreement to SI.com.

Presuming the deal is completed, Johnson appears poised to cash in on a “pillow year” contract (i.e. a one-year pact to prop up his declining value) in an ideal setting. Earlier this winter, there was word that Johnson reportedly -- and smartly -- sought to pitch in San Diego or San Francisco, which are two spacious ballparks in the NL West and thus a far cry from Toronto’s homer haven in the AL East.

Migrations to the NL typically work well, given the lack of a designated hitter, but this move bodes especially well for Johnson. AL East clubs averaged 732 runs last year, which was by far the most of the six divisions, while NL West teams averaged 657 runs, which ranked fifth ahead of only the NL East. Similarly, no park witnessed more home runs than the Rogers Centre last year, per the ESPN Home Run Tracker, at 2.64 per game, while Petco ranked in the majors’ bottom third at 1.80 homers per game in its first season after the Padres moved in the fences.

Home runs were a particular plague for Johnson in 2013, as he allowed 1.7 longballs per nine innings, a rate that was more than twice his previous career-worst and that ought to improve in new surroundings.

Additionally, Johnson’s unsightly 6.20 ERA needs to be put in its own context, as some of his other peripheral numbers were very good, including a career-best 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings that shows he can still miss bats. Also, his poor 11.6 hits per nine innings may be partially attributed to bad luck behind him, as his batting average on balls in play was a .361, up from a prior career rate of .302.

Given the cost of good starting pitching in today’s market -- and Johnson’s tantalizing potential, owing to his 3.06 ERA in more than 730 innings from 2008 through ’12, including an NL-leading 2.30 in 2010 -- a contract of $8 million is exceedingly reasonable, even for someone as injury-prone as Johnson. Since his first full season of 2006, he has thrown fewer than 100 innings as often (four times) as he has thrown more than 150. He logged only 81 1/3 innings with Toronto and didn’t pitch after Aug. 6. He had a bone spur removed from his elbow in early October.

To that end, there were multiple reports, including by Yahoo.com, that the Padres would have a $4 million club option if Johnson makes fewer than seven starts in 2014. That’s an awfully clever protection against injury for the organization, thereby lessening the risk somewhat. With Ian Kennedy, Andrew Cashner, Eric Stults and Tyson Ross already in that rotation -- and with other arms such as Burch Smith, Robbie Erlin and Cory Luebke all looming -- San Diego has set itself up nicely to not only compete but also potentially trade some surplus, while Johnson is in the right place for a turnaround.

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