Kelly Johnson, Quintessential Rays Acquisition

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 third he has chosen of his own free will. While this season was the first second in which Johnson was scheduled to become a free agent, it was the second third 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.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

19 Responses to “Kelly Johnson, Quintessential Rays Acquisition”

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  1. SF 55 for life says:

    Great signing in my opinion. This signing gives them solid depth now in the outfield and in the middle infield. It also allows them to play the match ups more efficiently.

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  2. Paul Swydan says:

    Corrected number of times Johnson has actually been a free agent. My fault on that.

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  3. Nick says:

    And Kelly Johnson has actually had inverted splits so Maddon can play him when he can and not worry about the opposing starters. Could probably see some LF even though he hasn’t played it since 2005. Who knows with Maddon, though.

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  4. rotowizard says:

    I love how when the Rays make a signing like this it’s considered shrewd and interesting, but when a team like the Pirates make this type of move it’s considered cheap and inconsequential. That’s directed more at the local media and fans and not at FANGraphs writers. Just venting, feel free to ignore me.

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    • Maybe it is because the Rays win and make the playoffs more often.

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    • Ozzie says:

      The Rays seem to not be able to do anything wrong when it comes to media coverage (unless we talk attendance), and this is coming from a Rays fan. But this move is quintessential Rays ball. Infield depth not only allows Maddon some flexibility, it should give them average to above average players to fill in for a guy like Longoria or Zobrist should either go down with an injury. Something they probably learned all too well last year when they had Drew Sutton batting clean up and Wil Rhymes logging 137 PAs.

      Also, if you want one move the Rays definitely should be regretting- just look at the Jaso for Lueke trade to Seattle.

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    • Spike says:

      totally agree, rotowizard. KJ hasn’t been good in a few years. Doesn’t mean he has to be finished but this should be a meh move at most… a player who frees Zobrist to play RF if that’s what they want to do. I thought the Rays should have jumped into Bourn chase given obvious price drop. That would have been a quintessential Rays move.

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    • Cody says:

      The differences between Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay in this scenario are: 1) Tampa Bay has the tool to use this signing to their benefit (i.e. Maddon’s mind) and 2) Tampa Bay has proven over the past 5 years that these sort of incremental moves are essential to continued success. Pittsburgh has neither Maddon or success at this point.

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    • Bip says:

      they initially signed Liriano for 2/14. Liriano seems like the type of guy the Rays might sign… at 1/3.

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  5. Ray says:

    I hope the Rays enjoy Kelly Johnson. He is absolutely terrible. Can’t catch up to a fastball, can’t see breaking balls and the patience that used to serve him so well is just putting him behind without the ability to defend the plate. Unlike Escobar, which was actually a savvy signing, this guy is toast.

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  6. RMD says:

    Apparently, this deal is the nail in the coffin for Myers earning a roster spot in Opening Day. What an irresponsible blunder.

    They obviously want to intentionally delay his service time, which is smart… but their SUPER PLATOON of Fuld/Duncan is projected for one (!!!!!) WAR. Why pretend to be able to see six years into the future? This is the weakest the AL East has been in over a decade. An organization’s first priority should be seizing an opportunity, not relishing in one’s ego of constantly thinking about a half decade into the future.

    In 2010 Jason Heyward was on the Opening Day roster while he could have been called up in June with no qualms from anyone. In 2009, the Braves waited till June to call up top-prospect Tommy Hanson. his 2.89 ERA showed he was more than ready. That year, the Braves were the last team in the NL to have been eliminated from the playoffs. Too bad they opened the year with Jo-Jo Reyes and his 5 starts and an ERA of 7.00. In 2010, they learned their lesson – started with their top prospect – and made the playoffs by one game. History may repeat itself if they start with replacement level Fuld over a prodigiously talented Myers.

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    • Spike says:


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    • Jim says:

      Actually, doesn’t this move(until the arrival of Wil Myers in early to mid-June, at least):

      a. Send Zobrist (almost) permanently to the outfield(probably right field).

      b. Send Matt Joyce to left field and Desmond Jennings to center field(or Joyce goes to RF and Zobrist goes to LF, perhaps).

      c. Send Sam Fuld to the bench as a 4th OF.

      Which is why guys like Brandon Guyer and Elliot Johnson and Sean Rodriguez are battling for one of the final bench spots, because the Rays also re-signed Luke Scott, who will be at least the platoon DH, presumably along with Matt Joyce, and Roberts and Kelly Johnson will be the platoon 2B, so the 4-man bench is essentially:

      1. OF Sam Fuld
      2. Backup catcher(one of Lobaton or Gimenez, most likely)
      3. Loser of Roberts/Johnson platoon at 2B
      4. One of Sean Rodriguez/Elliot Johnson as the utility infielder who can play SS(since I don’t think either Roberts or Johnson can play there.)

      So, Guyer’s only shot is to directly challenge Fuld for the 4th OF spot–if he loses, he pretty much goes back to the minors to start the season and serves as depth.

      Also, when Myers is ready to come up, I’m guessing one of Roberts/Johnson is gone, either traded or released. Myers goes to LF, Jennings stays in CF, and the Rays go back to a platoon of Zobrist and Joyce in RF and Zobrist/(one of Johnson/Roberts) at 2B, with one of Joyce/Zobrist also getting time at DH to give Scott a day off when the Johnson/Roberts survivor plays 2B on certain days.

      At least that’s my guess. ;)

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      • Spike says:

        yeah it’s a crowded situation down in Tampa with few exciting options (outside of Myers). I was surprised they re-signed Scott tho if healthy he will provide some pop. There are a couple of players there who will not make the 25.

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      • Upstater says:

        Can’t see platooning lefties Scott and Joyce at DH. Against LH pitching, you’d want either Duncan or Guyer on the roster to platoon with Scott or Joyce.

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  7. Baltar says:

    This signing surprised me greatly. The Rays now have a handful of mediocre 2B’s behind their one good one, Zobrist.
    Either Friedman already has another trade planned or he’s planning for Zobrist to be full-time in the outfield (at least until Myers comes up) and to platoon at one or more of 1B, 2B and DH.
    There will only be room for 2 spots on the roster after 12 pitchers, 9 starters, a reserve catcher and a 4th outfielder, presumably Fuld. Roberts, Johnson, Johnson, Rodriguez and maybe Fontenot will have to fight it out for one starter spot and 2 reserve or platoon spots.

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  8. Seanto says:

    Maddon could also be planning on using Zobrist as a floater depending upon the match-up, as Maddon may not see Escobar as a true everyday player. Johnson could also be DH insurance in case Scott poops the bed again next season.

    Love the signing! If he gets hot, he would either be a nice fit in the 2 spot, or provide some real ability later in the lineup. I was a little worried going into the season, but a signing like this gives me optimism. The Rays play 25 deep better then any team in the league, and it’s a blast to watch!

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