Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 12/22/11

On Wednesday morning, the Chicago Cubs came to an agreement for a one-year deal with free agent OF Reed Johnson. The Cubs are no strangers with Johnson — three of the last four times Johnson has signed a contract, it had “Cubs” literally written all over it (counting this most recent transaction).

It may be surprising to the Cubs fan base, however, that one of the staples of the Jim Hendry regime — the scrappy fourth outfielder Johnson — has been voluntarily re-added to the roster. However, Speedy Reedy should not be found guilty by association.

The truth is: Reed Johnson, hey, he’s not all that bad.

Johnson started his career with the Toronto Blue Jays, earning a starter’s haul of PAs from 2003 through 2006. During that time, he put together only a single season over 2.0 WAR (the 2006 season) and generally looked unimpressive.

After the Jays released him 2008, the Cubs took in the yet-to-be-amazing Johnson to play the role of their great white scraptastic hope — y’know, the quick little Caucasian fellow who dives headlong into brick walls and such. As a 31-year-old fourth outfielder, Johnson culled together 374 outfield PAs while in a weird timeshare with Mark DeRosa, and Johnson ended the year with a nifty 1.6 WAR.

Johnson then went on to play two feh seasons, one with the Cubs, one with the Dodgers. His perceived value shrank as his age grew, earning only $800K with Los Angeles.

When, the Cubs re-signed Johnson for $990K in 2011, years after his first appearance in Chicago, I was upset — mostly because Johnson blocked one of my all-time favorite players, the exceptional Mr. Fernando Perez, for the 4th OF position. But, much despite my consternation, Johnson had a great year, hitting .354 wOBA and 120 wRC+ in his 266 PAs.

Suddenly, after his 2011 fun-bomb, Johnson looks like a different player. Putting his last four years together (age 31 through 34) and prorating those numbers to 600 PAs, Johnson actually comes at as a 2.0 WAR player.

He’s not a stellar base runner (11 steal, 10 caught stealing, and 0.4 BsR in the last four season). He’s not an amazing fielder (0.3 UZR over his last four seasons). He’s not a great hitter (.330 wOBA and 98 wRC+ since 2008).

He’s just Johnson. Average.

But, since he has displayed no particular weaknesses since getting relegated to part-time duty (where he can focus on mashing lefties, which is his specialty), Johnson has become a relatively valuable asset. Which is nice, especially since he is pretty cheap these days.

Let’s face it, though, the Cubs are not yet a playoff team. And unless Alfonso Soriano (with less than 2.0 WAR in two of his last three seasons) finds a fountain of youth in 2012, the Cubs may siphon quite a few PAs to Johnson next year.

For the Cubs and their current situation, Johnson makes sense. The recent-slash-impending trade of Sean Marshall to the Cincinnati Reds should signal to fans pretty clearly the Cubs do not anticipate much competitiveness in 2012.

Still, stranger things have happened. Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein just watched his 2011 Red Sox lose a Wild Card spot to a Tampa Bay Rays team that was in a self-proclaimed “reloading” season. And, now with a second Wild Card, the Cubs have more chances than ever to slip into October’s dance.

At the same time, the club is stuck between a rock and Carlos Zambrano‘s contract. As my buddy mb21 notes, the Cubs have, in essence too many dead assets to fully engage in a rebuilding process:

The reality is that even if they trade several of their players, they’re not going to get all that much in return… Other than [Matt Garza and Sean Marshall], though, the Cubs just don’t have a whole lot.

–snip–

A complete and total rebuild sounds wonderful, but it’s not like the Cubs are going to be selling that many valuable pieces. When Matt Garza is your most valuable trade piece you just aren’t going to replenlish an already weak farm system with much of an upgrade.

Theo Epstein has repeatedly mentioned the Cubs have entered the asset collection business. Unfortunately, the team is in possession of some negative-value assets.

The hope, I imagine, is to turn some of his contracts-worth-more-than-production situations into prospects, but with that being a trick only a few GMs can manage every once in a while, the Cubs — and Cubs fans — are going to have to be content with patience. And with more averageish production.

And with Reed Johnson.

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