This afternoon, it was reported that the Rays will ink Kelly Johnson to a one-year deal. It’s an interesting match, as Johnson provides the Rays with the one thing that they like — a player who has been very good in the past but who still comes at a modest cost. He also gives Tampa manager Joe Maddon the thing that he likes best — options.
Tampa will be Johnson’s fourth team, and the second he has chosen of his own free will. While this season was the first in which Johnson was scheduled to become a free agent, it was the second time he was thanks to the fact that the Braves non-tendered following the 2009 season. He paid them back for their kindness by posting the best season of his big-league career to date in 2010. He smashed a career-high 26 homers and swiped a then-career-best 13 bases. He played great defense at the keystone as well, and combined with his great hitting put up 5.8 WAR for the season, which was the third-best total among second basemen that season — only Robinson Cano and Rickie Weeks were better.
Since Johnson was still a year shy of his 30th birthday heading into 2011, it was thought that perhaps he was just blooming a tad late, and that he really would become a star for Arizona. Then he went out and hit .209, and the Dbacks shipped him off to Toronto in late August. He experienced some mild rejuvenation in Toronto in the final month of 2011, but went right back to not playing well offensively in 2012. As Jeff Zimmerman detailed back in October, Johnson has had trouble both making contact and driving the ball since his spectacular 2010 campaign. Perhaps that is the reason why Johnson started hitting the ball on the ground with more frequency last season, as he posted a 1.34 GB/FB, which was his highest rate since his rookie campaign in 2005. It wasn’t a strategy that worked necessarily — his 3.8% infield hit percentage (IFH%) was among the league trailers, and was the worst mark of his career. Only 19 players had a lower IFH%, and they were mainly guys you would describe as lumbering — Adrian Gonzalez, Chris Davis, Jason Kubel, Paul Konerko, Ike Davis, Adam LaRoche, Ryan Doumit, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Smoak, etc.
That’s not to say that Johnson is beyond redemption. Despite the fact that he swung, and chased more, more pitches than he has in the past, he was still able to post a healthy walk rate. And if his batting average on balls in play comes to the level that you would expect, he could end up having a decent season with the bat. Defensively, he was not good last season, but in the three seasons prior he had posted neutral or above-average defensive marks, so again, there is reason to think that he can do better. ZiPS certainly hasn’t given up hope — it pegged him at a 2.4 WAR that would be a great return for the Rays considering what will likely be a minimal cost.
How a player fits on the Rays is always part of the equation as well. For the most part, Maddon likes to have players who are either flexible, or allow him to exploit the flexibility of other players on his roster. In Johnson, he may just have both. Johnson most definitely gives Maddon the freedom to let Zobrist shuffle out to the outfield, be it to sub for Sam Fuld or Matt Joyce. It was also mentioned in the report that Johnson may log some outfield innings of his own, something that he doesn’t since 2005. Still, while he may not have done so in the recent past, the fact that he is willing to do so is likely to endear him quickly to puzzle-piece shifting Maddon. Still, Zobrist is the one more likely to log outfield innings, since he has proven quite capable of doing so in the very recent past. If they wanted to, the Rays could play Zobrist in the outfield full-time and run a conventional last-name platoon of Johnson and Ryan Roberts. They probably won’t do that, because there will be times when it will be nice for the Rays to have Fuld’s glove out there. Also because of this Wil Myers guy the team acquired in the offseason.
One thing that this deal signals — besides the fact that Sean Rodriguez is now probably going to have battle very hard to retain the last spot on the Opening Day roster with Brandon Guyer and Elliot Johnson — is that Myers will definitely start the season in the minors. This was a previously held belief of course, but it seems more certain now that the Rays have now whittled their available position player spots to one, and as mentioned, it will already be a three-man battle royale for that spot. And if there is one silver lining in that for Rays’ fans it is that Johnson has been a better first-half than second-half player in his career, and that has been especially true in each of the past two seasons.
By the second half of the season, Johnson may not be a member of the Rays, or if he is, he might very well be a utility guy. If Myers comes up and wrests away a starting gig, there will be precious little playing time for him. But until then, he may be the quintessential Rays free-agent acquisition — one who has shown the ability to be above-average in the past but doesn’t come with that price tag because of recent underperformance.