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 prospect analysis. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.


10 Responses to “Robbing Johnson of a Shot”

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  1. Skip says:

    Kenji 2007:

    3.0% BB%, 8.5% K%, 52.6% Swing%, 32.1% O-Swing%, 85.5% Contact%, 20.1% LD%, 3.40 Pitches Per PA

    Kenji 2008:

    4.8% BB%, 8.7% K%, 49.4% Swing%, 28.65% O-Swing%, 88.5% Contact%, 21.1% LD%, 3.61 Pitchers Per PA

    (“Borrowed” from http://ussmariner.com/2008/10/15/food-for-thought/)

    I realize it isn’t entirely the point of your article and it was still probably not the wisest of contracts, but I’m pretty confident saying Kenji hasn’t completely fallen off.

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  2. drew says:

    Its a no brainer that Clement has the most value if he can stick behind the plate but I just don’t see it. From everything I’ve heard he hasn’t showed much promise at being able to do so. Is it time the M’s scrap the idea of Clement being a catcher?

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  3. Dave Cameron says:

    Rob Johnson is underrated in the same way that spam is delicious.

    He had a nice stretch in June and July where he had a bunch of balls fall in for hits, but he’s still got a long swing and lacks power. He’s probably a .250/.300/.350 hitter in his prime.

    If some organization out there thinks that he’s worthy of a major league job and wants to give the Mariners something useful for him, I will gladly encourage them to take it.

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  4. drew says:

    “Rob Johnson is underrated in the same way that spam is delicious.” wowsers!

    Some people really spam. Ask a hawaiian native about spam and you’d swear you asked about filet mignon.

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  5. philosofool says:

    “Johjima is making a lot of money to justify sitting more than two or three times a week.”

    Eh. Sunk cost fallacy. You don’t eat a shit sandwich just because you’ve paid for it. The M’s are on the hook for Johjima’s contract and he gets paid whether he does a great job warming the bench or a crappy job on the field. Maybe if you’re Bill Bavasi you have to keep him on the field because you said that his performance is worth $8M and you have to stick to that (which is one of the dumbest things that media often put a FO up to.) Jack Zduriencik and Don Wakamatsu can do whatever they want with Kenji unless their bosses say to them “We don’t understand what sunk costs are. We’ve paid for this, it’s a shit sandwich, and now, since we paid for it, we’re gonna eat it!”

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  6. drew says:

    “Maybe if you’re Bill Bavasi you have to keep him on the field because you said that his performance is worth $8M and you have to stick to that”

    -I really think its possible Kenji’s contract extension came from above Bavasi.

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  7. BrettJMiller says:

    Hiroshi Yamauchi is such an asshole. :(

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  8. Marc says:

    I love writing about Mariners’ prospects… even if everyone disagrees with me… I always get lots of responses.

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  9. drew says:

    Marc what are people saying about Moores D ? Does he have the potential to be a above avg defender?

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  10. Brian Cartwright says:

    MLE wOBA for Johjima last 3 years in Japan were 345, 366, 331…3 years in Seattle 345, 335, 271…projected 316 next year, at age 32 may not be washed up, but still could hit better than avg ML catcher (311)

    Clement is the best hitter of the bunch. 364, 294, 347, 363 last 4 years, projected 340..would be avg (357) or below at 1b, but well above at c

    Moore 329, 318, 363 projected 333 is even well above Johnson (235, 287, 314 projected 295) offensively.

    Johnson looks like 4 of 4 offensively

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