Neal Cotts was never the prospect, neither when he was being thrown into Keith Foulke/Billy Koch trade nor when he was called up, that Erik Johnson is at this moment. His mechanics were described as “busy”, his eventual control problems (while crazy) could have been somewhat foreseen and while he may get the extension on his release to make his fastball play up like his defenders (mainly Hawk) claim, the velocity excited no one.
Yet whenever MLB debut struggles need to be placed in context, look no further than the experiment to start Neal Cotts in 2003, back when White Sox pitching prospects lived an existence similar to what hitting prospects experience now. A little over 100 innings of fine work in Double-A Birmingham was enough to make a 23 year-old Cotts a candidate to aid a desperate starting rotation. The illusion that he could help lasted for about an inning.
A Garrett Anderson double play got Cotts quickly out of the first inning of his Aug 12, 2003 debut in Anaheim, but he led off the second with back-to-back walks and an RBI single to Bengie Molina. The dregs of the Angels lineup (Robb Quinlan and Shawn Wooten) bailed him out, so he upped the ante and started the third inning with four more free passes. Hilariously, Angels manager Mike Scioscia broke up the four walks by having Alfredo Amezaga (who was already 1-1 on the night) bunt against the the guy who couldn’t find the plate, which it made it easier for everyone’s favorite bastion of control and stability–Dan Wright, of course–to come in and clean up without allowing another run.
By the time Cotts was walking four Yankees in the first inning of his fourth and final start, his control problems already had too much of a built-in fear factor to merit patience. His best night of results still included five walks over five innings, so it was impossible to ever catch a glimpse of what his route to being an effective starter would be.
And this is a guy who actually settled down to have an effective season or two out of the bullpen.
With that grim memory in mind, it’s easier to appreciate what Erik Johnson offered in the realization of his three-level season, hashing out any first-game jitters in Yankee Stadium against a lineup full of names he grew up with. He threw a pitch with cutter speed (88-89 mph) and slider movement that bored in on left-handers. He’s probably not hopeless.
In fact, if Johnson scoops up Ichiro Suzuki‘s fourth inning dribbler and makes something resembling a normal throw to first base, vague compliments like “he showed composure” and “it’s good that he finished strong rather than be driven out of the game” and “it was cool when he angrily punched his glove after the first inning,” might be backed up with a win, which tends to rosy up how everyone is assessed no matter what.
Even though he struggled and his curveball looked messy, the tools were there. Johnson never looked like a fraud who had hid his glaring flaws just long enough to earn an ill-deserved promotion. Low-to-mid 90’s heat, a breaking pitch that works to turn to when the other one doesn’t is more than what was shown in the initial appearances of Jose Quintana and Hector Santiago, and those guys are basically developmental fairy tales.
I can’t quibble with Johnson without remembering Cotts, Fifth Starter Hell, and maybe Brendan Fraser’s first start in The Scout, which might keep me from quibbling at all.
Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan