When the Orioles dealt away their longest-tenured and most popular player, Trey Mancini, with the surprising club just three games out of a playoff spot on Trade Deadline Eve, the deal was poorly received in many corners of Birdland. For the O’s to cut ties with their clubhouse leader and one of their most productive hitters when the team was on the verge of accomplishing something special, fans argued, was a gut punch from which the team wouldn’t recover.
It didn’t quite play out that way. The Orioles did come up short the playoffs, but posted a solid 32-28 record after the trade, while Mancini was unproductive for Houston in the season’s final months, batting .176/.258/.364 in 51 games. Still, certain factions of Orioles fandom will continue to wonder whether things might have turned out differently had Mancini stayed in Baltimore, where he was comfortable, for the season’s final months. The fact that the top prospect the O’s acquired in the deal likely won’t pitch again until 2024 didn’t make the trade easier to swallow.
Still, Seth Johnson could prove to be worth the wait — and well worth the trade.
Despite undergoing Tommy John surgery Aug. 3, Johnson is one of the Orioles’ most promising young pitchers, currently ranked the club’s #10 prospect by MLB Pipeline and behind only Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall (who shares Johnson’s exact Sept. 19, 1998 birthday) among hurlers. That the O’s made Johnson the centerpiece of the Mancini trade, even knowing he required reconstructive surgery, speaks to the potential of his talented right arm.
Johnson has come a long way in a short time for a guy who didn’t become a full-time pitcher until 2019, when he transferred to Campbell University (Cedric Mullins’ alma mater) after a failed stint as a shortstop. His pitch arsenal and delivery was so impressive in that one season at Campbell that the Rays, one of the best organizations in baseball at developing pitchers, selected him with the 40th overall pick in the 2019 draft.
The 24-year-old’s repertoire, according to his Pipeline bio, includes “a fastball that touches 98 mph and sits in the mid-90s with carry at the top of the zone plus a swing-and-miss slider in the mid-80s that ticked up in velocity late last season.” He’s also developing a curveball and changeup, though the pandemic-scuttled 2020 minor league season and now the elbow injury have limited his progress in fully refining those pitches.
When he has pitched, though, Johnson has been impressive. In 2021, he averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings in 23 games for Charleston, the Rays’ Low-A affiliate, while posting a 4.13 ERA and 1.270 WHIP. He was on his way to an even better season across the board in 2022 — a 3.00 ERA, 1.259 WHIP, and 13.7 K/9 in seven starts for High-A Bowling Green — before the elbow injury struck.
The Rays ultimately parted ways with Johnson (for whom they acquired Jose Siri, their everyday center fielder for the final two months, from the Astros) not just because of the injury but because he was Rule 5 eligible after the season. The Rays, perpetually loaded with talent and facing a roster crunch, felt they wouldn’t be able to protect him. The Orioles did, adding him to their 40-man roster Nov. 15. Though Johnson likely won’t pitch in affiliated ball in 2023, the Orioles clearly have confidence that he’ll continue his upward trajectory even after the significant layoff.
Johnson, for his part, aims to return sooner rather than later, telling MASN’s Roch Kubatko that he’s “hoping to be able to pitch by next August, maybe in some Complex League games.” It’s a reasonable goal. Should Johnson be back on a mound in late 2023, the O’s likely would keep him at extended spring training in Sarasota for the rest of the season and hopefully have him at full strength to begin 2024 with a minor league affiliate. From there, he’d still be at least a year or two away from the majors, depending on whether and how quickly he develops.
So, yeah, it’s going to be a while before O’s fans can evaluate the return package in the Mancini trade. The other pitcher the Birds acquired in that deal, righty Chayce McDermott from the Astros, finished the 2022 season at Double-A Bowie and will hope to pitch his way into the Orioles’ plans within a couple of years. Johnson, though, is the prize of the trade. Perhaps there’s a glorious future in which he, Rodriguez, and Hall are a three-headed monster atop the O’s rotation, but we won’t be finding out anytime soon.
Up next: Noah Denoyer