Can Jim Johnson help the Detroit Tigers?


The Detroit Tigers recently signed former Major League closer Jim Johnson to a minor league deal.

Johnson lead the MLB in saves during the 2012 (51 saves) and 2013 (50 saves) seasons while with the Baltimore Orioles. During this past off-season the 6’6 righty was traded to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for Jemile Weeks and David Freitas.

After so much success during his tenure with the Orioles, the wheels completely fell off for Johnson while in Oakland. Through his first five appearances for the Athletics Johnson blew two saves and had an ERA of 18.90. On April 11th, just a little over a week into the season, Johnson was removed from the closing role. He stayed with the team until he was DFA’d on July 24th, only to be released on August 1st.

To put it simply, things didn’t go so well out in Oak-Town.

And just as Jim Johnson was about to begin his next career as a Rite-Aid cashier, in came the Detroit Tigers to the rescue; Dave Dombrowski, trident in hand.

When asked about his plan, Dombrowki explained that Johnson will join the team in New York to throw for pitching coach Jeff Jones before he heads for Toledo. The Tigers want him to make a few appearances at the Triple A level (courtesy of Shawn Windsor of the Detroit Free Press).

Dombrowski then said after a few appearances “we will go from there.”

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It’s easy to assume that the grand plan is for Johnson to be able to help the Tiger’s bullpen down the stretch. So the big question on everyone’s mind…can Jim Johnson help the Detroit Tigers?

The answer is yes. And here’s why…

Johnson was drafted in 2001 by Baltimore and made his Major League debut in 2006 with the Birds. After being nothing more than an average relief pitcher with respectable numbers, Johnson became the O’s closer in 2009 after George Sherill (remember that guy?) was traded. 2010 rolls around, back to the setup role, where Johnson had a poor year, logging only 26.1 innings.

But then comes 2011 where he posted a 2.67 ERA in 91 IP, becoming the teams closer over the 257 year old Kevin Gregg later in the season. Then, his breakout season arrives; 2012 was a season for the birds (get it?)…Johnson led the majors with 51 saves and a sparkling 2.49 ERA. He was elected to the All Star team and continued his success into the 2013 season, racking up 50 saves with a 2.94 ERA.

Other than this current season, Johnson has put up very respectable numbers. And even when he has slumped, he bounces back. I find it very hard to believe that somebody of his ability and track record is done forever. For crying out loud, the guy has had 50 saves the past two seasons. He’s just in a funk, but it’s easy to see why the A’s did what they did. Sometimes it’s better to just rip the Band-Aid right off. But I think they gave up on him a little too quickly; a demotion might have worked out in the A’s favor. But it’s too late for that.

Another reason I see Johnson helping out the Tigers is that even though he gained prominence as a closer, his regular relief numbers are great. Whether it be to get a quick out or set up, Johnson can do it all. The only thing that he seems uncomfortable doing is long relief, but with Detroit’s current pitching rotation, it’ll be a rare chance that long relief will be needed on a regular basis.

Johnson will also find success because there isn’t the mountain of pressure on him like there was in Oakland. He was acquired by the A’s with the hopes of being a lights out closer, and when he wasn’t they canned him. The Tigers bullpen was bottom three in the majors until just this past week where they moved up to 22nd, sporting a 3.96 ERA. The Tigers bullpen isn’t necessarily flourishing with tremendous talent so to retain a spot in Motown isn’t as difficult as they are in Oakland, whose bullpen owns the third best bullpen ERA in baseball. And Jim Johnson, just like every Tigers fan out there knows that his signing is a “it’s not like we can lose anything” type of signing. Not much is expected of him so anything that he does will be met with open arms. Not much is being asked of Johnson, really, as Joe Nathan is the team’s closer.

But perhaps what gives Jim Johnson the best chance at being successful is that Detroit has people that can develop talent and bring people out of the woodwork. Yes, Detroit’s pitching has been struggling recently and the bullpen has been bad all season. But pitching coach Jeff Jones is a miracle worker at times, and Dombrowski seems to have an eye for arms.

Sep 27, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones (51) uses the dugout telephone during the seventh inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Just look at Doug Fister (my blood pressure rises when his name is brought up); he was a back of the rotation guy on one of the worst staffs in baseball (Seattle Mariners).  He is acquired by the Tigers and becomes a stud, pitching well in both the postseason and the regular season (oh, how I miss Doug). Joba Chamberlain is also a perfect example of Jones and Dombrowski’s Penn and Teller like magic. When the Tigers signed Joba to a one year deal this past offseason, he was an absolute scrub. His days of being a highly touted New York Yankees prospect were behind him, and he hadn’t really hadn’t done anything to speak of since the Bush presidency; comes to Detroit, becomes one of the best setup men in the league, ranking 6th out of all RP in holds this season with 22. And who’s to say Max Scherzer would be where he is today without Jones and Dombrowski. Acquired as an afterthought in the Curtis Granderson trade, Scherzer has went from a 4 or 5 starter to a Cy Young Award winner. Johnson’s healthy and can still pitch, he has just had a tough time getting the ball across the plate. Now not all can be attributed to the coaches but they have a bigger impact than most people think. In my eyes it’s an easy fix and his case is pure child’s play compared to what the Tigers front office and coaching staff have dealt with in the past.

Jim Johnson is not a bad pitcher. He has the talent and Detroit has the tools to get him back on track.

You can rub all the rabbits feet you want and hope that he can help the Detroit Tigers, but expect him to be wearing the English D in the near future….