Is he ready for the major leagues? What’s his role?
There is absolutely nothing in Steve Johnson’s 2012 season to complain about. At Norfolk, he had a 2.86 ERA, allowed 66 hits in 91 1/3 innings, struck out 85 and walked 31. OK, his walk rate was a little higher than you might like — 3.1 BB/9 IP — but it was an admirable season. He earned his first promotion to the major leagues and was, if possible, even better. A 4-0 record, a 2.11 ERA, 46 strikeouts in 38 innings — and he did all that in the heat of a pennant race.
He definitely has earned a spot on the major-league team, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to get it. There are nine other legitimate candidates for the starting rotation. Four pitched well enough in 2012 to be considered favorites, a couple of other candidates are out of minor-league options, and a couple of others are left-handed pitchers. Johnson has options left, so if a player without options pitches well in spring training, he has a leg up on the major-league roster spot. As of this writing, I think Johnson will start 2013 at Norfolk, but there’s a very good chance he’ll be promoted to the Orioles early and/or often.
There is one other caveat. Johnson pitched extremely well at Norfolk in 2012, but extremely poorly at Norfolk in 2011. Johnson started 2012 as a spot starter/long reliever at Norfolk and had success. He pitched with more confidence and trusted his stuff; he was very tentative in 2011. When a spot in the starting rotation became available, he moved into it and continued to pitch well. We do need to see if 2012 was an aberration, or if he really has improved.
Johnson really hadn’t been counted for much before the 2012 season. I think that the lack of pressure allowed him to focus on succeeding as opposed to not failing. We often see highly-touted pitching prospects struggle, in large part because they think they have to be perfect. When nothing’s expected of them, they focus on delivering good pitches rather than perfect pitches. And it’s almost impossible to plan to throw a perfect pitch. Good pitches are good enough.