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Can pitching coach Johnson lure free agents?

New hire's reputation, past ties are advantage for Reds
MLB.com @m_sheldon

CINCINNATI -- When the Reds surprised the baseball world last week with the first of two high-profile hires -- nabbing pitching coach Derek Johnson from the Brewers -- they signaled their determination to turn their starting pitching fortunes around after several poor performing seasons.

Reds president of baseball operations Dick Williams has access to what he considers significantly more dollars to spend on free agents. And while money most likely will be the driving force when free-agent pitchers make their decision to join a club, could Johnson be an added X-factor who could lure a starter?

CINCINNATI -- When the Reds surprised the baseball world last week with the first of two high-profile hires -- nabbing pitching coach Derek Johnson from the Brewers -- they signaled their determination to turn their starting pitching fortunes around after several poor performing seasons.

Reds president of baseball operations Dick Williams has access to what he considers significantly more dollars to spend on free agents. And while money most likely will be the driving force when free-agent pitchers make their decision to join a club, could Johnson be an added X-factor who could lure a starter?

"I certainly hope it adds value," Williams said Nov. 2, when Johnson's hiring was announced. "I know that his reputation among players is very strong. We were able to talk to guys that played under him in college and in the big leagues. They really believe in them. They believe that he helps maximize their ability. That came across very clearly in our discussions with him. He's a player-first guy. He's there to help them maximize their potential. That gets around.

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"The pitchers talk amongst themselves. I know from the ones we were able to talk to firsthand that the reputation precedes him. I hope that gets out there as we talk to pitchers about coming to Cincinnati. I think he's a real asset for those guys."

Milwaukee pitchers posted a 3.94 ERA over the three seasons Johnson was its pitching coach. This season while winning a National League Central division title and reaching the NL Championship Series, the club was fourth best in the NL with a 3.73 ERA.

In the postseason, Brewers pitchers had a 2.40 ERA in 10 games, including a 1.64 ERA for the rotation that lacked a true ace.

"He did a really good job of finding what players need," Brewers starter Zach Davies said upon Johnson's departure. "Being adaptable to the player, and being able to coach different types of people. He was able to find certain things for certain guys, and that's huge in guys' development. For me, it was just confidence. He gave me reaffirmation that, 'You're here in the Major Leagues for a reason.' I needed that when times were tough. He's been a confidence boost for me, a mechanics guy for some guys, a pitch [developer] for other guys. What's great about DJ is he has many ways to improve guys who need it."

Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel headline the list of starting pitcher free agents. There are others, however, who could be drawn to Cincinnati specifically because of Johnson. Here is a look:

LHP Wade Miley
Miley, who turns 32 next week, signed a Minor League deal with Milwaukee last offseason and missed some time with groin and oblique injuries. But he still turned in a fantastic season with a career-best 2.57 ERA in 16 starts, marking the first time he didn't reach 30 starts since 2013. Miley had a 5-2 record, but the Brewers were 12-4 when he pitched, and he had a 1.23 ERA in four postseason starts. Those numbers were a vast improvement from his previous three seasons with the Red Sox, Mariners and Orioles, when he was 28-39 with a 5.10 ERA in 94 starts.

Video: Wade Miley to enter free agency this offseason

LHP Gio Gonzalez
A two-time All-Star, Gonzalez has often been one of the better lefty starters in baseball, but he was enduring a down year with the Nationals in 2018 before he was traded to the Brewers on Aug. 31 to help with the playoff push. After he went 7-11 with a 4.57 ERA in 27 starts for Washington, the 33-year-old Gonzalez was 3-0 with a 2.13 ERA in five starts once he joined Milwaukee while the team won all five of those games.

Video: Gio Gonzalez enters free-agent market for 2019 season

RHP Lance Lynn
Lynn, 31, never pitched for Johnson but was with an NL Central rival in the Cardinals for most of his career. He also spent three of his seasons in St. Louis with Reds manager David Bell when he was Mike Matheny's bench coach from 2015-17 (although Lynn missed '16 recovering from elbow surgery). Lynn didn't have a superlative '18 season in the American League with the Twins and Yankees while posting a 10-10 record and a 4.77 ERA in 31 games (29 starts). But over six seasons with the Cards, he was 72-47 with a 3.38 ERA in 183 games and started 30 games four times.

Video: RHP Lance Lynn enters free agent market

RHP Sonny Gray
No, Gray is not a free agent and is currently with the Yankees and third-year arbitration-eligible. But New York is openly looking to deal the 29-year-old who did not materialize as a rotation asset the past two years after his five seasons in Oakland that included an All-Star appearance in 2015. Gray was 11-9 with a 4.90 ERA in 30 games (23 starts) this season. What's his connection to Johnson? Gray pitched for Vanderbilt University, where Johnson spent 11 seasons as the school's pitching coach.

"Once we feel comfortable with the return, then we'll make the decision to move him," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told MLB.com on Tuesday. "The plan is to move him, because I don't want to keep going through the process of something that won't work here, even though it will work somewhere else."

Video: Cashman on Gray's future with the Yankees

Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast.

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