The Oakland Athletics brought Jim Johnson into the game Wednesday night against the Houston Astros with a seven-run lead in the top of the eighth inning. He had six outs to get and everybody could go home happy. Everybody, including the A's fans who had grown to despise him.
Six outs. Seven-run lead. Easy enough, right?
Well, nothing's been easy this season for Johnson, the reigning AL saves leader who was traded to Oakland last winter from the Baltimore Orioles and paid $10 million by the usually payroll-stingy A's. Oakland fans booed him his very first game. He lost his closer job soon after. Heck, fans have even booed his wife this season.
So when Johnson came in Wednesday night and gave up four runs without getting a single Astros batter out, it was obvious this failed relationship needed to be put out of its misery. Johnson and the A's were, simply, a disaster.
The A's designated Johnson for assignment Thursday, meaning his time with the team is done. The A's now have 10 days to trade him, release him, place him on waivers or get Johnson to accept a minor-league assignment. The last one won't happen. A trade is possible, but Johnson clearing waivers and becoming a free agent is the most likely scenario.
Given the desire for bullpen help in baseball these days, Johnson will likely have suitors waiting. The Marlins were reportedly interested in him already. The Tigers are obviously rebuilding their bullpen, so they could nose around. The Royals, Pirates and Blue Jays are all teams who have been interested in bolstering their bullpen, though they haven't been linked specifically to Johnson.
Johnson accumulated a 6.92 ERA in Oakland this season in 38 appearances with just two saves. By comparison, he had a 2.94 ERA last season with a league-high 50 saves for the Orioles. He saved a league-high 51 games in 2012 as well. Teams will look at those past number and think they can fix him, build him back into an effective pitcher again. Maybe so.
For the A's, this was a rare bust. The A's aren't usually the team to take on an overpriced player from another team, but they tried it with Johnson and savvy GM Billy Beane absolutely whiffed. Johnson's $10 million salary made him the second-highest paid player on Oakland's meager $82 million payroll. Only Yoenis Cespedes made more money, $500,000 more to be exact.
The not-so-bad part for Oakland (62-38, best in MLB) is that Johnson's decline didn't hurt them too much. They were quick to yank him out of the closer role, going first to a closer-by-committee system then eventually giving the job to Sean Doolittle, who has been stellar. The A's bullpen is stacked, so it could withstand the hit of having to use Johnson in non-pressure situations and now losing him altogether.
It's obvious for both the A's and Johnson that this move is for the best — like a couple breaking up when it never should have been together in the first place.
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