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30 Questions: How much does Big Unit have left in his tank?

3/9/2009

Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.

Does Randy Johnson have one more good season in him?

He's 45 years old, and with five Cy Young Awards under his belt, he's a virtual lock to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer five years after he finally calls it a career. But that's just it. Randy Johnson isn't ready to go gently into that good night. In December, the man they call the Big Unit signed a big contract -- one year, $8 million -- to pitch for the San Francisco Giants. But is this simply a case of Johnson hanging on, hoping to get the five wins he needs to reach the 300-win gold standard for pitchers, or does Randy actually have something left in the tank?

Historically speaking, Johnson is pretty much in a class by himself. While there has been a handful of pitchers over the years who have pitched well into their mid-40s, the vast majority of those who had any modicum of success were knuckleballers, or otherwise considered to be "junk" pitchers. Gaylord Perry, Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro (who had 50 wins in four seasons after turning 45) all racked up seasons in the neighborhood of 200 innings pitched as they entered the tail end of their careers. However, none of these pitchers were what you would call overpowering. Even Jamie Moyer, still pitching in Philadelphia at the age of 46 this season, would be hard-pressed to double his age on the radar gun at this stage of his career.

Johnson, on the other hand, is still a power pitcher, and his K/9 ratio of 8.5 in 184 innings pitched last season is incredibly impressive. Let's compare that to other strikeout legends as their careers came to an end. Roger Clemens kept retiring and unretiring, pitching fewer and fewer innings each season, and in his final season (2007), he had a less-than-Rocket-like 6.2 K/9 ratio. Nolan Ryan saw his workload decrease each season from 1989 until his retirement in 1993, finishing his final stint with the Rangers with a K/9 of 6.24. Then there's Steve Carlton, who spent his last two full seasons bouncing around the majors, playing for five different teams in 1986 and 1987, managing a paltry 5.39 K/9 in his final season.

Johnson, however, is not content to simply win his five games, make the record books and go home. He's still consistently topping 90 mph on the radar gun. On Tuesday he struck out the side in two of his three innings of work and didn't allow a run to his former team, the Diamondbacks, in a spring game. Johnson finished with seven total strikeouts, and threw 29 strikes in 42 pitches. He didn't even bother to break out his devastating splitter. On Sunday, Johnson increased his pitch count to 53 and threw another gem, with 3 1/3 scoreless innings against Oakland. In this one, he decided not to break out his slider, relying primarily on his two-seam fastball and splitter to get the job done, and still he struck out three batters.

Johnson was quoted on the Giants' official Web site as saying that if he's going to be successful, it will be because of his experience rather than the velocity of his pitches. "It's not like I have a 98 mph fastball anymore. … I have to kind of outsmart them in a way," he said. Still, it's not like Johnson's fastball has completely disappeared either. He's still consistently over 90 mph, and reportedly he's not thinking about hanging it up anytime soon. In a recent interview with the Seattle Times, Johnson let the world know he feels his gas tank is far from E. "Who's to say that I can't pitch just because I'm 50 years old?" Randy asked. "If I'm 48 years old and am still throwing 93 [mph] and still winning 10 or 12 games and still having fun and still being competitive, why would age matter? I'll retire when I feel like the fire has gone out of my belly. But I still have that fire and that will to compete."

The body is still willing, and the mind is still able. To those who say Johnson is merely hanging on, let us remind you that he finished the 2008 season with a 104-pitch two-hitter against the Colorado Rockies on Sept. 28. That doesn't sound like someone who simply can't say goodbye. That sounds like someone who has plenty more left to give. Randy Johnson currently has an ADP of 172.6 in ESPN Drafts and is being picked behind the likes of Chien-Ming Wang, who is just as much an injury risk as the 45-year-old Johnson and far less likely to accumulate strikeouts. It just doesn't make sense.

I say you go ahead and put your faith in Randy Johnson. He has miles to go before he sleeps.

A.J. Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.