Third-Place Diamondbacks Buy Chris Johnson

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 maintain a batting average on 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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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


31 Responses to “Third-Place Diamondbacks Buy Chris Johnson”

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  1. adam says:

    I’m not necessarily defending the trade for Arizona, but they do have the best run differential in the division…

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  2. Paul says:

    If we apply your logic to the definition of what constitutes a “full” playoff spot, only the two teams in each division with the best winning percentage could be called “full” playoff teams, since their win probability due to home field advantage is higher.

    You guys need to just get over it, the 2nd wild card team is no longer playing in the regular season. They are, literally, a “full” playoff team.

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    • jauer says:

      Let’s see, everything else being equal, the final 8 teams each have a 12.5% chance of winning the tournament. However, if you are playing in one of the play-in games, all else being equal, you have a 0.5*.125 = 6.25% chance of winning the tournament.

      So, no, the 2nd wild card (and 1st wild card) are not full playoff teams. The division winners each have twice the chance of winning the World Series as any wild-card team.

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      • chuckb says:

        And this assumes that the Wild Card play-in winner is at full strength for its 1st playoff series. In all likelihood, it won’t get to set its rotation they it wants and might have tired arms in the pen as well. The best case scenario is that the Wild Card winner has half the likelihood of winning the championship as the division winners do.

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    • evo34 says:

      The point is that a wild card team will now have just a 50% chance of getting to the final four in each league, vs. last year when a wild card had a 100% chance of being the final four. Therefore the concept of “making the playoffs” as a non-divisional winner is worth roughly half of what it used to be, and teams should act accordingly. I think that is all Fangraphs is trying to say.

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  3. Jeremy Beer says:

    Borchering was moved off 3B to LF early this year (may even have been during the off-season). No one thinks he can play third in the high minors, let alone the majors. Krauss is also playing LF, I believe, and many have said that he projects more as a DH than anything else.

    Johnson isn’t arb-eligible until 2014. So the Dbacks get a cost-controlled 3B who has been and could possibly continue to be league-average, and who could likely bridge them until Matt Davidson is ready in 2014. That’s a definite upgrade for them, and in my opinion they didn’t pay too much in giving up Borchering and Krauss, especially given the depth they have in the outfield (Pollock and Eaton are next in line for major-league OF jobs).

    Also, I’d look for them to deal Drew before the deadline and get back a prospect with the value of at least one of the two they just gave up.

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    • Dave says:

      You might be forgetting that Borchering still ranks in their top 10 prospects; sure he lost some value by not being able to play 3B but his bat/power is still widely regarded as good enough. And these players can stick as well in the field as Chris Johnson can stick at 3B certainly, his defensive numbers are not good at all.

      Why should trading Drew net them HALF the haul that the Astros got for Chris Johnson? That doesn’t even make any sense.

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  4. Dave says:

    Trade makes me sick to my stomach. Just two more OFs we gave up on. Krauss was in the midst of a .946 OPS season at AA; sure he’s not young anymore but 24 isn’t exactly old either (especially considering what they got back). Borchering has the tools and he was a first-rounder; still only 21. Meanwhile, we get…what exactly in Chris Johnson? A terrible defender who hits for an okay average and nothing else; he’s also really old for how little he’s contributed. The point of trading from an area of strength is to get something decent back in return. Only solace is that it’s a relatively minor deal, at least compared to dealing Upton, but still I’ve gotta wonder about Towers. I guess this is what I get for telling everyone they were premature on giving praise to Luhnow. Ugh.

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  5. Juan Chapa says:

    One can always tell the know-nothings-about-baseball when they start
    resorting to their stats. Look at what happened last year. The Cards
    were under achieving, although they led the league in hitting and
    scoring, and had one of the best pitching staffs. I believe they were
    stunned when they lost Wainey (the runner up to the Cy Young the
    previous year). But, their bullpen was going great, and LaRussa
    capitalized on other teams’ mistakes and bad luck. Look for a team
    that has those ingredients, and you will find a potential WS Champ.
    But, do not include the Diamondbacks this year. They were close
    last year, and Gibson needs to get back the winning edge. I
    think he’s a LaRussa in the making, and he’ll win, but not this year.

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  6. dirtbag says:

    Was listening to the DBacks game in the car today, and they had the team president on talking about the trade.

    He bragged that Johnson was younger than Chase Headley and had “basically identical numbers.”

    I nearly drove off the road.

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  7. qudjy1 says:

    While i agree that Chris Johnson isnt a world beater, AZ really didnt give up much for them.

    Borcherings lack of plate discipline is being exposed in AA (he had to repeat A ball in the Cal League), and Krauss can hit, but cant play the field. It will be a MIRACLE if both of their careers add up to the 3.0 WAR that Johnson has already added in his young career.

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    • Dave says:

      First off, why do people keep saying “Johnson’s 3.0 WAR”? He doesn’t even have half of that because his horrible defense. He plays a premium position poorly, to the point he should probably moved, but he won’t be moved because his bat can’t survive anywhere else except SS or C. He’s bad.

      Meanwhile, Krauss is three years younger, had just one bad year in the minors that knocked him of the top Dbacks prospects list (which he has more than atoned for), and really has no huge defensive shortcomings according to the limited data we have. Certainly he may be a bad defender, but who cares? He’s just going to be a left fielder, doubt he’ll be worth -16 DRS there in under 800 innings. Meanwhile, Borchering looks like a pretty similar hitter to Chris Johnson, only with power and he’s six years younger. Not surprisingly, he was bad at 3B but moved. He might be a below average defender in RF but I’ve read he has a decent arm.

      It was pretty obvious the Astros won this trade, Towers looked downright foolish here and at this point I think even I could do a better job than him.

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      • Marc says:

        While I do agree this is a bad trade, you can’t be serious, can you? There is no way in hell you’d be a better GM than Towers; don’t even kid yourself there, and I like how quickly you jump to that conclusion when none of these three have even played for their new teams yet. Remember when we all laughed at Towers for the Aaron Hill trade? Jason Kubel signing? Let’s face it, actual MLB executives know far more than any of us do. They have access to data we couldn’t even imagine existed, and are surrounded by hundreds of bright minds everyday for years and years and years. They know things about players that we never ever will.

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  8. Chuck N Chino says:

    I know the luster is off Josh Bell, but is it over for the guy? They gave him 21 games (under 60 PA’s) and put him back down, then called up Wheeler and now Chris Johnson via a trade. Put a fork in Josh Bell??

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    • Marc says:

      He was a “hope for the best” acquisition. He had no expectations, and he’s as done as he was before the trade. So yes. He’s done.

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  9. ValueArb says:

    Yes, we all laughed at Towers for paying $15m to Kubel, saying he was a good bat, horrible defender no more valuable than the cost controlled good glove LF starter.

    Instead Towers got a great bat, terrible defender. Team defensive efficiency has declined significantly, pitching staff has gotten seemingly worse (hmm, wonder what Kubel connection is?), and team ant winning as often. Kubel is having a career year which will never recur, but instead of selling high and trading Kubeo, he sells low on Roberts, and makes an inexplicable trade for a third baseman who is so bad he doesn’t address any real needs for a team heading back to

    Towers has been riding Josh Byrneses and Dipotos coat-tails, 90% of the roster talent was acquired by those two, and they deserve all the credit for last year. Towers deserves credit for all the crapp gets he’s overpaid, the empty .300 average of the awful bloomquisf, the waste of a roster spit McDonald, guys who would have been DFAed if not for the unbelievable $7m they are owed.

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    • dirtbag says:

      Don’t forget Geoff Blum!

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    • Marc says:

      Sure. I don’t think he’s that good of a GM, but my point was that people who honestly think they can do better than a major league executive are absolutely delusional, and it’s outright silly to base that judgement on a trade that was completed just hours before (like, seriously). Towers would not have made this move without consulting his scouting department and developmental staff to know more about Borchering and Krauss, or spent considerable time evaluating what they have in Chris Johnson. There’s a very real possibility Towers and the DBacks front office know something about Johnson we never did, whether it’s a correctable flaw in his swing and stance, the way he sets himself up in the field, whatever. It happens so many times in baseball. 

      I don’t think KT is a good GM compared to his peers, but writers and especially readers are so unbelievably dumb compared to major league executives and front offices and you are out of your mind if you believe you could even handle yourself right now if you were put in their position. This Kevin Towers has direct access to coaches who are with Krauss and Borchering everyday and whose jobs it is to evaluate them every day, while you’d be here sitting and reading a scouting report that was compiled in 15 minutes or at best your paid subscription to Baseball America. This Kevin Towers has hours and hours of video of countless players that are looked over by a number people that have degrees in biomechanics and have been in baseball for years, he has state of the art technology that could pay off your mortgage and data that puts so much importance on the most insignificant little detail.

      As much as we like to rag on GM’s who make bad moves that didn’t pan out, none of us are even a fraction of the baseball minds they are, period. There’s a reason they do what they do and are paid the way they are.

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      • Baltar says:

        Yes, and our elected representatives and appointed geniuses in the Fed and Treasurer knew much more about unqualified mortgages and derivatives in 2007. Thus, they were absolutely correct in doing nothing about this bubble until it was out of control.
        I guess it was just a fluke that fixing it cost us trillions of dollars and the worst recession since the 1930′s.
        The “they must know more than we do” argument is the worst there is.

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      • ValueArb says:

        It doesn’t matter what direct access KT has to evaluations of his talent. He just traded two guys with a lot of trade value for a third baseman who is horrible, possibly replacement level. Even if he thinks his prospects are hugely over-rated, why can’t he get market value for them?

        Why did he dump Roberts for a 25 year old non-prospect? KT doesn’t understand player value, and he has a sunk cost mind set.

        He tremendously overvalued Bloomquist and McDonald, and gave them much larger contracts than Roberts. He undervalued Roberts, and dumped him at the nadir of his value. Even if he needed a roster spot he should have dumped/traded Bloomquist or McDonald first, and kept the younger, higher ceiling Roberts.

        KT just gave up one of the best rated set of prospects in the entire trading season for Chris Johnson? That doesn’t make sense.

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    • jcxy says:

      Not correct. The only people who were laughing at the Kubel deal were people who grounded their opinions in pre- and ill-conceived notions of who Jason Kubel actually is.

      1. You, for instance, predicted that the Kubel/Parra wOBA+ split would be closer to 10 than the 20 points that the early models predicted. Through 7/29: .388 (Kubel, up from 2011) .333 (Parra, down from 2011).

      First, I grant you that Kubel has enjoyed *some* good luck this season and the EOS split will likely be closer to 30 than 60. However, this split was wholly predictable. As a number of people (cough) pointed out when the deal was signed, the shift in leagues was going to help Kubel (because the NL has a lower wOBA than the AL). Second, the park effects greatly played in Kubel’s favor. Per StatCorner, he went from a park that depresses HR by 30% (!!) to one that buoys them by 5%. Saying that he’s in the midst of a “career year” as a way to dismiss his production is far too simplistic and wrong. Jason Kubel is a very nice offensive player who was bought cheap (his 2011 is what “buy low” looks like).

      2. You predicted Kubel’s defense would be atrocious and say that team defensive deficiency has declined significantly. Kubel’s defense has not been near atrocious. Further, the models (UZR) say he’s definition of a league average defensive LF this year. Further, the notion that he’s to blame for the lack of defensive effeciency misses that the team has seen some regression to the mean for players outperforming last year’s UZR. Per WAR, Kubel’s contributions with the bat have MORE than made up for his average fielding ability.

      3. The concept that 1B/OF depth is not important was proved–as it typically is–wrong. Simply, depth is something good teams have and bad teams lack and Arizona has benefited in 2012 from depth at these positions. To paraphrase Marlo Stanfield “[Depth]…sounds like one of those good problems”.

      4. Finally, despite his performance, you still think Kubel does not provide good value. He’s produced 11.5 MM of FA contract value and ZiPS projects him to return positive contract value by the end of Year 1 of the two year deal. You’re right, it’s not good value. It’s great value. But ok…opportunity cost. You said in the offseason you’d prefer 38 year old Johnny Damon, who was much less expensive, although a decade older than Kubel. Miss. I’ll give you the benefit of hindsight–return me that kind of dollar production at 3b. Wilson betemit? Aramis Ramirez? Nick Punto? Pass.

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      • Baltar says:

        I’d like to vote for you twice: once for your analysis and once for quoting Marlo Stanfield.

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      • ValueArb says:

        [quote]1. You, for instance, predicted that the Kubel/Parra wOBA+ split would be closer to 10 than the 20 points that the early models predicted. Through 7/29: .388 (Kubel, up from 2011) .333 (Parra, down from 2011).[/quote]

        Sample size. Any big fat DH can mash for a .350 BABIP over a half season, but keeping it up is unlikely when your career BABIP is .306.

        [quote]As a number of people (cough) pointed out when the deal was signed, the shift in leagues was going to help Kubel (because the NL has a lower wOBA than the AL). Second, the park effects greatly played in Kubel’s favor. [/quote]

        League shifts and park effects help everyone, not just defensively limited outfielders. How would Damon have hit in Chase?

        [quote]2. You predicted Kubel’s defense would be atrocious and say that team defensive deficiency has declined significantly. Kubel’s defense has not been near atrocious. Further, the models (UZR) say he’s definition of a league average defensive LF this year.[/quote]

        LOL. Sample size, sample size, sample size x 3. UZR needs like 2 seasons of data to provide reasonable confidence, not a half season. Kubel has many seasons of UZR data that provide a high confidence that his defense is poo poo, among the worst in the league.

        And you even misread the data as it exists. Kubes is now below average by UZR (-1.2) , but his UZR was actually was well above average during the first quarter of the season, so his rapid decline is just a small sample outlier diving towards it’s ocean’s bottom mean.

        Correlating factors include the fact the Twins did everything possible to keep him at DH, and the eye-test of watching Kubes waddle around in left.

        [quote]3. The concept that 1B/OF depth is not important was proved–as it typically is–wrong. [/quote]

        Ok, you got me. Kubes was the only available player who could provide 1st base depth and outfield help. A DH. Who is a terrible defender. Right.

        [quote]4. Finally, despite his performance, you still think Kubel does not provide good value. He’s produced 11.5 MM of FA contract value and ZiPS projects him to return positive contract value by the end of Year 1 of the two year deal. You’re right, it’s not good value. It’s great value.[/quote]

        LOL, when his UZR is -15 by seasons end, and his good luck at the plate fades, he’ll be lucky to still be at that fantasy calculation of $11.5M of “FA contract value”.

        I admit I love how your entire rant ducked covering his horrid -3.8 base running “value” this year.

        And of course you miss the biggest point. Parra is already at $9M in contract value by the same measures, and Parra was “free”.

        How much more value would Parra have if Kubel wasn’t playing his position? Even if Kubel returns $15M in value for the $15M spent, he’s taking playing time from a cheap guy who is a better fit for your team that has a talented pitching staff forced to pitch in the Coors Field of the desert.

        Sure it would be nice to upgrade the offense, but you don’t replace one of your best and cheapest starters with an expensive defensive liability just to do it. Upgrade first, or third, where you don’t have super talent.

        Kubel is hitting the snot out of the ball in one of the hottest streaks of his career. HIs UZR the best it’s ever been. By raw measures of value he’s been a massive upgrade in LF for the DBacks. Yet despite this “massive upgrade” the Diamondbacks suck this year, are pitching worse , and have a team defense that’s worse than last year.

        But I’m sure it’s the other players fault.

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      • ValueArb says:

        “The concept that 1B/OF depth is not important was proved–as it typically is–wrong”

        Missed this first time around, how does Kubel help 1b depth when he hasn’t played there at all?

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  10. Jason says:

    Johnson’s first game with the team, hits a grand slam. 2nd game with the team, 3 for 4 with a walk and 2 RBI’s. Maybe being in a very productive offense will help him out for the rest of the season.

    A minor note, he was hitting .338 with an .898 OPS in the 7 spot this year (77 AB’s) and in Arizona that’s the spot that he’s hit the first two games. That could help his production as well.

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  11. Caochd11 says:

    DBacks studied CJ like no other team. Here are some of the things they are betting on:
    He now takes counts deep. He never did that before. His walk rate is up and his K rate is way down. Look at the stats since the all star break. This trend has shown thru this season and easily predictable the outcome. Does anyone remember when CJ led Spring training in home runs? I think it was 8 or 9 two years ago. It was common knowledge he did not like the Astros hitting coach the past two years. But he did like Biggio when he was hitting coach back in 2010…The year CJ had his break out year. He hits a sophomore slump and is sent down. Big mistake by Houston, but such is life. He comes back strong this year and he has performed. This guy will turn into an above average player, but it has taken this long for someone to recognize his ability. It isn’t always in the analytics, there are some other influences that can effect the production of a player such as this player, CJ.

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