The timing of the trade was so good that Seth Johnson didn’t dwell as much on the oddity of his circumstances.
Johnson had just arrived in Dallas on Aug. 1 for the surgical repair of his right elbow that would be done two days later. Waiting for his father to join him at the rental car counter, Johnson received a phone call from the Rays informing him of the three-team trade involving the Orioles.
“With the Rays, you get traded pretty quick and stuff happens kind of fast with them,” he said yesterday, “but it was still kind of a shock just because everything you’ve known goes out the window because you’ve got a new organization to learn.”
A coincidence weaved its way into the introduction.
“It actually worked out nice because later that night I was planning on going to the Orioles and Rangers game anyway, so I got traded like four hours before that game and got to go see the new organization play that night,” he said. “So, that was pretty neat.”
The procedure didn’t bring any complications. Dr. Keith Meister handled it, as he did with Orioles ace John Means.
No introductions are necessary between surgeon and team. Meister is like part of the family.
“He did a good job,” Johnson said, “and I really liked how much he knew and made the whole process really easy for me to understand going into it.”
Johnson, 24, was eighth in MLBPipeline.com’s organizational rankings immediately after the trade, which moved Trey Mancini to the Astros, and he settled at 10th in the site’s updated listing. An impressive residence considering that the Orioles have the No. 1 system in baseball and his placement isn’t done by default.
It's based more on his 2021 season at low Single-A Charleston, when he posted a 2.88 ERA in 23 games and struck out 115 batters in 93 2/3 innings, and his 2022 season at High-A Bowling Green that consisted of seven starts, resulting in a 3.00 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 27 innings before his elbow injury. And what scouts saw beyond the statistics – the fastball with its high spin rate and impressive vertical break that sits at 95-97 mph, a mid-80s slider that flashes plus, the tools and makeup that project him to be a high-end starting pitcher after converting from shortstop in college.
The Orioles must wait on him. They knew it while negotiating the trade and didn’t care. Other teams also checked on his availability.
For the deal to happen as he was about to be sidelined for an extended period “was a little weird,” Johnson said, “but it was also like, I get to reset with the Orioles because I got the surgery two days after I got traded, so it was almost like I got to rebuild from scratch with their staff and stuff. It was kind of nice.”
Johnson was added to the 40-man roster on Nov. 15 to shield him in the Rule 5 draft. The Orioles knew the level of interest during the summer and weren’t taking any risks.
“It was 50-50 in my head, because they helped pay for the surgery, so I thought that would be a reason to put me on, but I did just get surgery, so I didn’t know if they would take a chance on protecting me, knowing I’m not going to throw for a while,” Johnson said. “But I’m really grateful for the opportunity to actually be on it.”
Johnson was rehabbing his elbow at the spring training complex in Sarasota until it closed for renovations, which has him set up at his Fort Myers home. He used to live in Port Charlotte, a closer drive, but moved to accommodate girlfriend Kersten as she started graduate school at Florida Gulf Coast University.
“I’m feeling good. Rehab’s been going well. Body’s feeling really good,” he said.
“Pretty much I can do everything except for actually throwing a baseball or throwing medicine balls. As far as upper-body lifts, I’m pretty much cleared for all that stuff.”
An exact timetable for Johnson to pitch again doesn’t exist. Recoveries can vary after Tommy John surgery, and the Orioles don’t intend to rush him through it. Perhaps he’s back with an affiliate late in the minor league season, or he’s unavailable until 2024.
“I’m hoping to be able to pitch by next August, maybe in some Complex League games,” he said. “I start my throwing program in mid-January, so once that starts I’ll probably have a better idea. But I’m hoping to be able to throw the last couple weeks of the summer next year.
“I was talking to my dad about it when it first happened. It was like, 30-40 years ago, you hear ‘Tommy John’ and it’s like a death sentence for your career, but nowadays it’s so normal that you almost forget it’s a major surgery.”
The Orioles are surrounded by reminders. Triple-A pitcher Kyle Brnovich and Double-A pitcher Zach Peek, both left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, are recovering from the same procedure.
Johnson stays in contact with a few of his friends on the Rays who went through the same surgery, and a friendship has developed with Brnovich. They were drafted in 2019, Johnson as the 40th overall pick out of Campbell University and Brnovich in the eighth round out of Elon University.
“I ask him stuff pretty much every day, probably annoy him. I just like to get their input and their experiences so I can make sure everything’s going smoothly for me,” Johnson said.
“I knew who (Brnovich) was since he pitched at Elon. We actually played a mid-week game against them when I was at Campbell. He didn’t pitch in that one because, obviously, he was a weekend guy, but I knew who he was. I knew his name and got to meet him when I got traded over.”
Johnson also met Means in Sarasota shortly before the Thanksgiving break, another recovery resource at his disposal.
“Next week I’ll be back there,” Johnson said.
The Orioles happily will wait for Johnson to get back on a mound and demonstrate why they coveted him at the deadline.
An elbow scar couldn’t scare them away.