Robbing Johnson of a Shot

It’s safe to say the Seattle Mariners organization has made some interesting moves and decisions in the last year or more. One of those transactions – re-signing Kenji Johjimas to a three-year, $24-million contract extension in April of 2008 – continues to have ripple effects throughout the minor league system.

The club’s top pick from the 2005 draft, Jeff Clement, has seen his MLB catching career come to a screeching halt thanks to the presence of Johjima, whose career line of .272/.313/.412 and three-year offensive slide, fails to instill fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers (and the .227 batting average in 2008 just adds insult to injury). The move also keeps the underrated Rob Johnson from receiving the opportunity that he deserves.

Johnson, 25, was selected out of college in the fourth round of the 2004 draft. After his second pro season, he was jumped all the way to Triple-A to begin 2006 despite having played just 19 games above A-ball – due to his excellent leadership skills and developing defence.

Johnson has now been stuck at Triple-A for the last three years. His numbers have increased significantly each of those past three seasons and he finished 2008 with a line of .305/.361/.441 with an ISO of .137 in 417 at-bats. He also posted rates of 8.1 BB% and 14.6 K%. Johnson struggled in a brief MLB call-up with a .127 batting average in 31 at-bats.

The right-handed hitting catcher has struggled to hit well against right-handed pitching in his career, but he improved in 2008 and managed a line of .316/.367/.466 in 320 at-bats. Johnson did, however, revert to his old ways in the Arizona Fall League when he posted a batting average of .195 in 41 at-bats against right-handers.

Defensively, he threw out 37 percent of base stealers in Triple-A with his strong arm. Johnson also calls a good game, but is still working on his receiving skills.

It’s possible that Johnson could back-up Johjima in 2009 with Clement seeing time as the third-string catcher, as well as a part-time player at DH and first base. But Clement needs to play behind the dish at least three times a week to avoid tarnishing his already questionable catching skills – and Johjima is making a lot of money to justify sitting more than two or three times a week. Johnson has the ability to be an above-average defensive catcher and at least an average offensive backstop – if he can play more than once of twice a week.

Prospect Adam Moore, an offensive-minded catcher, should spend the season in Triple-A and is not far from being ready for the Majors – and his offensive upside is stronger than everyone this side of Clement. The Mariners have a bit of a mess behind the dish with three MLB-worthy catchers (and a Triple-A prospect)… and it could have all been avoided by letting Johjima walk after the 2008 season.

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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects, depth charts and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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