On the Bubble: Tyler Johnson, LHP

This story is the first in a series of articles that will focus on A's prospects who will be battling for a spot on the Oakland 25-man roster this spring. Part One looks at A's Rule V draft choice Tyler Johnson. OaklandClubhouse.com writer Todd Morgan argues that Johnson should be wearing green and gold come Opening Day in Baltimore.

For fans of the Oakland A's, the winter of 2004-2005 has been one of the more trying off-seasons in recent memory. Sure, they've had to endure the losses of fan favorites like Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen, Ramon Hernandez and Miguel Tejada in past years, but they could always rest easy knowing that the Big Three were around to anchor a stellar starting rotation.

Not so this year with the trades of Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. For the first time since 2000 the team will enter spring training with glaring holes in the rotation – holes likely to be filled with young, unproven players. In fact, the A's will have a number of young players competing to fill vital roles up and down the 2005 roster.

One strategy that Billy Beane has chosen to offset the club's newfound weakness at starting pitcher is to build a stronger bullpen. On paper his efforts on this front seem successful, with newly-acquired right-handers Juan Cruz and Kiko Calero joining the holdovers from 2004 – closer Octavio Dotel, lefty Ricardo Rincon and righties Chad Bradford and Justin Duchscherer – in the A's relief corp. In addition, 2004 draftee Huston Street and 21year-old fireballer Jairo Garcia figure to start the year in Sacramento, and both have a good chance to be called-up at some point during the season f they have strong Triple-A performances. This is arguably the deepest collection of relievers the A's have had to start a season since their playoff run began in 2000, but there is one more guy who has a serious shot at breaking camp with the big league club.

His name is Tyler Johnson.

Johnson, a 2000 34th round draft-and-follow selection for the St. Louis Cardinals, joined the A's organization this winter as their only selection in the Major League phase of December's Rule 5 Draft. Baseball America has a nice explanation of the Rule 5 process:

Major league teams must protect players on their 40-man rosters within three or four years of their original signing. Those left unprotected are available to other teams as Rule 5 picks.

Players who were 18 or younger on June 5 preceding the signing of their first contract must be protected after four minor league seasons. Players 19 and older must be protected after three seasons.

Baseball America link

The catch is that any player chosen must be kept in the major leagues the entire following season. If they're not, they must be offered back to the player's former team for $25,000 – half of the $50,000 selection price.

Though his amateur career was marred by academic eligibility problems, Johnson's professional career to date has been a relatively successful one. Featuring a 12-to-6 curve that Baseball America called "the Cardinals organization's best breaking ball" along with a fastball that touches 92 MPH, Johnson posted strong numbers as a starter in 2001, splitting time between Johnson City of the Appalachian League, where he was 1-1 with a 2.66 ERA and a 58/21 K/BB ratio, and Peoria of the Midwest League, where he went 0-1 with a 3.95 ERA and 15/10.

2002 saw a marked improvement, as he spent the entire year in Peoria, posting a 15-3 record with an ERA of 2.00 and 132 strikeouts, 43 walks, and 96 hits allowed in 121 innings over 18 starts. Amid concerns about his durability and his tendency to get down on himself during starts, Johnson was converted to relief upon his arrival at Double-A Tennessee of the Southern League. He flourished in the role going 1-0 with a 1.65 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 27 innings while holding batters to a .168 average.

2004 figured to be Johnson's last year in the minors if he could perform well in Double-A and earn a promotion to Triple-A Memphis during the season. Unfortunately it was not to be. He went 2-2 with a 4.79 ERA, 4 saves and 77 strikeouts in 53 games at Tennessee , a performance that was not enough to convince St. Louis to protect him from Rule 5 eligibility.

So does Johnson have a realistic chance to stick in Oakland throughout 2005? Not only do I think he has a chance, I also think he could be one of the more important decisions facing the club this spring.

Aside from Ricardo Rincon, Johnson is the organization's only other left-handed relief possibility besides Sacramento starter John Rheinecker. Considering that Rheinecker has been a disappointment the last two seasons, Johnson's Rule 5 status makes him the obvious choice as the second lefty out of the ‘pen.

Do the A's need a second lefty reliever that badly? This is debatable. If the current roster holds through March, it would mean carrying 12 pitchers into Opening Day. Ideally the A's would only carry 11, but with such a young starting rotation the bullpen figures to get more use than in years past. On top of that, Rincon will be 35 years-old in April and 2005 could be his last year in Oakland.

With the team's needs beyond 2005 in mind, putting Johnson on the 25-man roster is a good idea because using Johnson as a situational lefty in 2005 will give Oakland a second lefty reliever as well as a chance to evaluate Johnson's potential to step into Rincon's role in 2006. If not for his status as a Rule 5 pick this would be a theoretical argument at best. The fact that the A's will likely lose him if he does not make the big league club makes it something close to a no-brainer. A successful Tyler Johnson rookie season will strengthen the bullpen's future and ensure that A's fans will have one less young guy to worry about heading into 2006.

Todd Morgan is a Senior Writer with OaklandClubhouse.com.

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