Jay Johnson has proven to be quite the nice gamble for the Phillies since he was signed as a minor league free agent in 2011. The New Brunswick, Canada native had previously been drafted by the Orioles and Blue Jays, but failed physical examinations which prevented him from signing with those clubs. After some work to prove himself, Johnson earned a pro contract and has developed into a quality lefty reliever.
Due to concerns raised with his throwing elbow during team exams, both Baltimore and Toronto backed out after having come to terms on financial agreements with Johnson. The offers were rescinded following the discovery of bone spurs and loose chips in his joint. Johnson never lost focus and was confident he would get an opportunity to be a professional pitcher at some point.
There was a third opportunity with the Mariners, but they backed down too and it took a phone call from Johnson's college coach Brian Kubicek to the Phils' senior advisor to the general manager, Pat Gillick, that resulted in a workout in Clearwater, FL which got Johnson the deal as well as the jersey that he long desired.
The Lethbridge Community College product made his pro debut in 2011 with Class A Lakewood. That year, in 40 games, Johnson looked strong, putting together a 1-5 record with five saves and a 2.94 ERA while striking out 49 batters in 49 innings out of the BlueClaws' bullpen.
The following year, the six-foot-two 210-pounder pitched mainly with Reading, but missed time with an injury. In 28 games at Double-A in 2012, Johnson notched a 2-1 record with a 5.02 ERA.
Johnson was a member of last year's Team Canada World Baseball Classic roster and feels that he picked up a lot by being around some big name MLB veterans. During an interview with me last summer, Johnson cited John Axford, Joey Votto and Justin Morneau as players he learned a lot from in the brief time he was a teammate of theirs last spring. Matching the intensity of such players, Johnson was among those that were ejected in the infamous WBC brawl against Team Mexico last March.
The 2013 season began with Johnson back at Double-A where he became one of Reading's most reliable arms. Through 38 games the youngster has a 2-2 record with three saves and a 2.65 ERA. He heated up along with the northeast weather, as he tallied a 1.76 ERA in 30 Eastern League games after April.
Following his strong effort with Reading, Johnson was promoted to Triple-A Lehigh Valley where he initially had a rough go of things against International League competition. Through his first six outings with the IronPigs, Johnson tallied a 12.70 ERA, but he bounced back, closing out his regular season allowing just two earned runs over 12 innings for a 1.50 ERA in his final 11 outings.
Johnson sports a pitch repertoire that features a low-90's fastball which spikes higher in velocity when he pitches more often, a nice slider and a change up that he likes to use to confuse right-handed batters. The menu has proven successful for the 24-year-old, who has a career 10.24 K/9 mark and 46.6% ground ball ratio. Johnson thrives on less innings/pitches per outing with more frequent appearances.
The main weakness for Johnson is the number of free passes he issues. Walks will be what holds Johnson back, if he never pitches above Triple-A. He posted a walk rate of 17.2% last year and has a 15.5 mark for his career in that category. Comparatively, 25-year-old lefty hurler Mario Hollands, who was invited to big league spring training by the Phillies this week, has a career 7.2% walk rate in four professional seasons at similar levels.
If he can reduce the bases on balls issued and continue to mow down the opposition, Johnson would be a fine candidate to be a big league filler if a lefty vacancy arises in the Phillies' bullpen this year.
Look for Johnson, whose favorite player growing up was Jonathan Papelbon, to be a late-inning setup guy in Lehigh Valley or possibly the IronPigs' closer to open the 2014 season.