DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The conditions weren't the best for a pitcher trying to get in his spring work, as Josh Johnson needed to do in an exhibition against the New York Yankees on Thursday. The perfect scenario would have been for Johnson to quickly get through his prescription of 60 pitches, sitting down for a little while between his turns on the mound, and instead he had to wait while the Toronto hitters feasted on some young Yankees pitchers -- nine runs in the first inning, six runs in the second. That run support would be fully embraced by a pitcher in the regular season, but in a meaningless exhibition, it was just another hurdle to be overcome.
Johnson mostly did what he set out to do for the day, continuing his evolution from someone who was mostly a two-pitch monster who overpowered hitters to something more refined, with less velocity but a greater array of pitches.
According to FanGraphs, about 90 percent of Johnson's pitches in 2008 were fastballs and sliders, with a few changeups mixed in. But as Johnson explained, he has wanted to create a greater dispersal of velocity in his pitches -- something to keep the hitters off-balance, to give them something else to think about. Johnson is 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds, and when he releases the ball, hitters say he looks as if he's about 2.5 feet from home plate. So they are geared up for the power stuff -- his fastball, and his slider. If he is able to consistently trust his off-speed pitches -- and "trust" is the word he used Thursday -- then he is a completely different puzzle than he was five years ago.
This is why he started throwing a curveball last year, a whole lot more. According to FanGraphs, Johnson threw just 55 percent fastballs, by far the lowest in his career:
His pitch selection Thursday was all over the spectrum. Johnson's first fastball to Yankees leadoff hitter Brett Gardner was 91 mph, which was generally the range of his hard stuff for the day -- 91 to 93 mph. Eduardo Nunez, who batted second for the Yankees, got a slider, at 86 mph.
But when Ben Francisco batted, Johnson broke out the whole tool chest. With a 1-1 count, he threw a sharp curveball, at 75 mph, and the outfielder took it for strike two. A lot of the time Johnson threw his curveball last season, he acknowledged, hitters would take it, as Francisco did; they were geared up for his fastball. This was a pitch that helped Johnson dig his way back into some ball-strike counts last year.
With Francisco down on the count 1-2, he was at Johnson's mercy, and only managed a half-swing on the next pitch Johnson threw, an 86 mph slider, for a strikeout.
He got through his three innings with 58 pitches, despite the incredibly long wait between innings. Not everything went well, as he mentioned after the game. Johnson is trying to get to a point where he can command a two-seam fastball on both sides of the plate, and one of those he threw Thursday was hit out of the park by Kevin Youkilis. He is trying to mix in some changeups.
But Johnson will turn 30 in the next calendar year, and like all pitchers, he is losing some velocity as he gets older. He is working to adjust. Johnson -- who is eligible for free agency at the end of the season -- will be on today's podcast to talk about the shift in his repertoire.
Johnson is working on his sinker, as Mike Rutsey writes.
• There is great uncertainty in the Jays' camp about the back end of the bullpen. Manager John Gibbons talked about having an array of possible options, depending on the progress of some candidates. Casey Janssen threw to hitters Thursday, and Sergio Santos worked in a minor league game. Gibbons views the veteran Darren Oliver as an alternative.
But every team in the AL East seems to have one major question, and Toronto's bullpen work -after the starters have finished will hang over the Blue Jays as the season begins. Tampa Bay had the best bullpen in the league last year, as did the Orioles, and the Red Sox and Yankees should have good relief corps. For Toronto, the last six to nine outs could be a manager's non-lethal version of Russian roulette.
• Gibbons grew up in Texas as a big fan of the Cincinnati Reds, of Johnny Bench and the Big Red Machine. As the Blue Jays took batting practice Thursday, Gibbons recalled that when he got his first hit in the big leagues, on April 17, 1984, it came against the Montreal Expos while playing for the New York Mets. Their left fielder that day was named Pete Rose.
Gibbons singled in the bottom of the fifth inning, and when Rose led off the top of the sixth, he tapped Gibbons on the shinguard with the bat and said "Way to go, kid."
The next day, there was a play at the plate, and Gibbons found Rose bearing down on him -- and tagged out one of his boyhood idols. "I got the better of him" on the contact at the plate, Gibbons remembered, laughing, still relishing that first contact with one of his boyhood heroes.
• Jorge Posada was back in the Yankees' camp the other day, in the retirement role he has with the organization, and as he played catch in front of the home dugout, hitting coach Kevin Long walked over -- wearing a large grin -- and suggested to Posada that he should head out to first base to take some grounders.
You learn some things playing in New York for almost two decades, as Posada did, and he knew exactly what Long's suggestion meant. "Yeah, the media wouldn't go crazy with that or anything," said Posada. "No way."
A couple of others said the same thing to him, and Posada laughed it off. He knows the Yankees are looking for a corner infielder, and if he even got near first base, the speculation would start about a comeback that Posada would not entertain.
Posada appears to be in excellent condition -- he does a lot of cycling, he said -- but when I asked him whether he had taken any swings, he said no, not since retiring. He's spent a lot of time with his son, Jorge Jr., who is growing to love baseball.
• I saw the Yankees play the last two days, and it's evident that Kevin Youkilis has worked to reduce a lot of the extraneous movement in his pre-swing setup, and he looks good at the plate, driving the ball. He barely missed a home run in his first at-bat against the Phillies on Wednesday night, before hitting the home run off Johnson and, subsequently, a triple. Scouts also continue to say they see good things in Ichiro Suzuki, and think he's headed for a good season.
• The Yankees' young pitchers had a terrible day against the Jays on Thursday, as George King writes.
PEDs penalties and more
• MLB players are in favor of stronger penalties, writes Amanda Comak.
The players have been duly warned about false positives, however, and they want to protect the players who can demonstrate that they accidentally tested positive. Last year, for example, Melky Cabrera essentially declined to cooperate with MLB investigators and then was found to be linked to an associate who had allegedly built a fake website to cover his tracks. As far as the players are concerned, they would be fine for a player in this situation to face very harsh penalties.
But the response from the league office has been tepid, because MLB officials -- who lost the appeal by Ryan Braun a year ago -- are leery of creating another layer of my-dog-ate-my-homework excuses, with everybody claiming accidental use.
One player reacted strongly to this, however, writing in a text "If Major League Baseball is unwilling to do a two-tiered system to separate intentional cheaters from guys who are guilty of negligence, [Commissioner Bud] Selig may as well start trying to forget that tougher penalties are even being considered by the players."
It seems to me that a two-tiered system could work this way: Put the procedural onus on a player who tests positive to prove he made a mistake. In other words, he'd go into that part of the appeal guilty until proven innocent. If the player claimed accidental use he would have to provide a full explanation and answer all questions from Major League Baseball and the players' association about the source of the substance he took -- and short of that, he'd face the harsher penalty. If evidence of accidental use was not clear and compelling, the player would face the harsher penalty.
• It was Story-Telling Thursday on the podcast, with Charlie Manuel offering up a tremendous Ted Williams tale, Jayson Stark talking about a baseball hit into an apartment outside Wrigley Field, and a discussion about the Albert Belle corked-bat caper. And Russell Martin explained how the Pirates practiced a walk-off homer.
• Roy Halladay's bullpen session was excellent, says his boss.
• It's only March, and the Padres have already had two top-100 prospects go down needing Tommy John surgery. Outfielder Rymer Liriano was first, and the latest is Casey Kelly, who is preparing for the worst, writes Bill Center. From his piece: