DUNEDIN, Florida - Lost, somewhat, in the chatter about R.A. Dickey's opening day start, Mark Buehrle's mound punctuality and Ricky Romero's move to the pitching rotation's fifth spot is Josh Johnson.
Johnson, 29, is entering the most important season of his career. Surely he has noticed some of the money being thrown around for all-star caliber pitchers? Felix Hernandez just re-signed in Seattle for seven years and $175-million. Cole Hamels re-upped with the Phillies last July for $144-million through 2017. Already there is talk that Justin Verlander (Detroit) and Clayton Kershaw (LA Dodgers) could become the first $200-million pitchers. With franchises signing lucrative regional television contracts by the bushel, there is cash aplenty for a flamethrower like Johnson, who mixes a 97 mph fastball with a cutter, a slider and a recently developed curve ball.
"If you win, things will take care of themselves," said Johnson. "All of a sudden you're labeled a winner and that can change (your value.) You see guys who pitch pretty good during the season and then throw a zero-ERA through the playoffs and all of a sudden they get paid a little bit more. I think it'll take care of itself as long as I go out there and win games for this team."
Johnson is a full year removed from shoulder trouble that limited him to nine starts in 2011. While he made 31 starts last season, the Minneapolis native struggled to an 8-14 record. His 3.81 ERA was the highest of his career in any year he has made at least 14 appearances. The key, though, is that Johnson stayed healthy.
"I feel good right now," said Johnson, an all-star in the 2009 and 2010 seasons when he combined to win 26 games. "I'm doing all the work to make sure (my shoulder stays healthy) and I've just got to continue that to make sure it happens."
The hulking six-foot-seven-inch right-hander, acquired in November's monster trade with the Marlins, is an imposing sight at his locker situated between those of Buehrle and Dickey. He towers over most of his teammates. Standing atop the mound adds another 10 inches and for opposing hitters, well, you get the picture.
"When he's on top of his game, he's one of the best pitchers in the game," said Jose Reyes, who had a .214 career average in 31 at-bats against Johnson before joining him last season in Miami. "As a hitter you have to put all the great (pitches) he has in your mind. That's tough when you face a pitcher with so much good stuff. I'm happy to be on his side."
Reyes knows of what he speaks. He took batting practice against Johnson on Monday and handed out shards of a bat to youthful onlookers. The bat had belonged to Emilio Bonifacio, grouped with Reyes for batting practice, but shattered when Johnson jammed him with a cut-fastball.
Ricky Romero uses the term "horse" to describe Johnson. Mark Buehrle echoed, "He can be a workhorse if he has to." Manager John Gibbons has Johnson slotted in his rotation's fourth spot.
"We're counting on him, we need him. It wasn't too long ago he was one of the top two, three pitchers in the game, reputation and what he accomplished," said Gibbons. "He's always had that overpowering arm. When you're that size, he's intimidating, that ball gets on (the hitter) a little quicker."
A big season from Johnson benefits both team and player. It could help to propel the Blue Jays to their first playoff appearance since 1993 and it would pave the way for Johnson to sign one of those big-money contracts that are becoming all the rage.
- Ricky Romero, who described today's bullpen session as "okay," says his elbow feels healthy. His knees continue to give him issues.
"It's kind of give and take," said Romero. "You have your good days and your bad days. It's one of those things where I'm trying to get the little things done. Keep them loose and not let them get achy and tight. We'll just see how they continue to feel everyday."
Romero developed tendinitis in both knees toward the end of last season.
- More Romero: If the 28-year-old former ace is upset about being at the back end of this year's rotation, he isn't showing it.
"Why should it affect me? If anything it helps me," said Romero. "It helps the team and I've always said, 'it's about the team, it's not about me.' I've never been an ego type guy where I feel like my pride is being hurt. Like I said, I know what I've done my first four years in the big leagues and I know last year was a struggle."
If the plan holds, Romero's first start of the season would be April 6, against Boston, at the Rogers Centre.
- Mark DeRosa, who turns 38 on February 26, is situated next to Brett Lawrie in the Blue Jays' locker room. They also hit in the same batting practice group on Monday.
DeRosa signed a one-year deal on January 22. Considered the "25th man," the holder of the so-called "final roster spot," DeRosa is being asked to provide leadership to youngsters like Lawrie.
- Monday was photo day at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. The first batch of players went to the shoot, located in the concession area along the first base grandstand, at 7:45 EST. It was about 5C at the time, prompting plenty of comments about the temperature.
- Anthony Gose randomly leapt over the fence down the right field foul line on his way to get his photos taken, clearing the four-foot high barrier with ease.