Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/17/14
Houston-astros-louis

Of course that title isn’t fair to the Diamondbacks in a season that features two wild cards. The Diamondbacks are a game over .500, four and a half out of first in the West, and five and a half games out of the second Wild Card slot. They have the sixth-best run differential in the National League.

But, given the fact that the wild card slots are not full playoff spots, maybe it was a little silly for the team to buy Chris Johnson from the Astros today. For the team to give up two legitimate prospects for Johnson, they must see him as a longer-term solution at the position.

Third base has been a problem for Arizona since Mark Reynolds left town. Ryan Roberts was great for them last season, but that kind of a break-out season at the age of 30 isn’t usually sustainable, and it turned out the power was a bit of a mirage. Without that power, league-average offense was probably out of reach, and third base isn’t normally a position you can hold on to with your glove. So the Diamondbacks shipped Roberts to Tampa Bay.

Then the team looked inward for a solution at third base. Their top prospects actually provided them a few options. They called up Ryan Wheeler, who might have been a first baseman faking it at third but was also ripping up Triple-A to the tune of a .351/.388/.572 line. But the defense is a question, and the power hasn’t always been as nice as he’s shown so far this year. Behind Wheeler, the team had two prospects coming up at the position in Bobby Borchering and Matt Davidson. Davidson just hit Double-A and could probably cut the strikeouts a little more — but is finally showing the power they wanted from him. Borchering has shown more power, but way more strikeouts and also less glove.

Now Borchering is gone, included in a trade for Chris Johnson. Included in the deal was also Marc Krauss, and the short prognosis for both players is that they have a few questions with regards to contact, and neither has the glove or the legs to play a premier defensive position. So they’ll have to really hit to make it as corner outfielders. Maybe one will, and the Astros had no reason not to take that bet.

Well, if you believe Johnson can’t maintain a batting average no balls in play around .350, then maybe they had a reason to not take the bet. The two seasons in which Johnson has shown a BABIP that high, he’s been better than league average with the bat. In those seasons, his problems on defense have taken a back seat, his power has been just enough, and he has shown the potential to be an under-control, league-average, two-win player on the infield.

When Johnson had a lower BABIP last season (.317), though, he looked every bit the below-replacement player that he was. He didn’t walk, he struck out too much, he didn’t show league-average power, and his glove was bad. That Chris Johnson is not worth two lottery tickets in the corner outfield.

Given their place in the standings and the possible trap of going after the wild card, it seems significant that Johnson is under team control until 2016. If Wheeler doesn’t shore up the glove, or Davidson doesn’t continue to show good power, then the Diamondbacks have a Guy at the position to hold down the fort. If those two do prove they need to be in the major leagues, Chris Johnson won’t keep them down. It’s a minor buy-now move with some positive depth implications for the future.

The Diamondbacks better hope neither Krauss nor Borchering make it, though — if they do, and Johnson’s BABIP drops back down to league-average levels, this trade will look terrible for them.


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