An offseason like this one for first basemen means some team is likely to get a real bargain. Although the Paul Konerkos, Carlos Penas, and Adam Dunns will dominate the headlines and teams’ wishlists, other players, like Lance Berkman and Derrek Lee, could be had for far less than they are used to earning. Perhaps on the bottom of the list, and for good reason, is the perpetually injured Nick Johnson.
Johnson’s career started as a highly-touted hitting prospect for the New York Yankees, a team he returned to on a $5.5 million-guaranteed contract last season, making his debut in 2001 but being traded after 2003 as part of a package for Javy Vazquez. After an-injury plagued first year with the Expos, Johnson strung together a couple full seasons (for him), hitting the 15-day DL just three times in ’04-’06.
In his time with the current Nationals franchise, Johnson established himself as a guy who might hit 20 home runs in a full season and walk over 100 times. In his two full seasons with the Nationals in 2005 and 2006, Johnson put up a .290/390/.501 triple slash line. After missing the end of 2006 and all of 2007 after fracturing his femur in a collision, Johnson has been a man of glass and never quite the same hitter.
In 2008, Johnson had his first wrist surgery, shortening his season after only 38 games, and seemed to be sapped of his power in 2009, although he did limit his DL time to only a 15-day stint due to a strained hamstring. His strong ’09, in which he batted .291/.426/.405 split between the Nationals and Marlins and was third in the majors in OBP, resulted in a $5.5 million guarantee from the New York Yankees and the hope that, being a year removed from wrist surgery and occupying the DH slot, he would regain some power and stay healthy. Instead, Johnson got in to only 24 games, the fewest since his rookie year, and batted .167/.388/.306, failing to allay worries about his fading power and re-injuring the same wrist he had surgery on in 2008.
This leads to extreme uncertainty for the 10-year vet going into the 2011 season, especially with a stacked 1B/DH free agent class. Without particularly strong defense and questionable power that has showed no signs of coming back, Johnson’s only real value to teams is his impressive ability to get on base. That ability showed no signs of slowing down in 2010, in which Johnson posted the highest isolated patience (on-base percentage minus batting average) of his career at .221 and walked 24 times in as many games. Johnson did what the Yankees signed him to do: set the table for the big hitters in the lineup. If he had hit even a little bit, he would have lived up to those expectations pretty easily. But he would have had to stay healthy.
Indeed, that’s the only real knock on Nick Johnson, and always has been.
At age 32 in 2011, Johnson’s not getting any younger or healthier, but his eye may even have improved this year. Of course, he may also just have swung less. According to Fangraphs, the latter is probably the case. Johnson swung at just 44.7% of pitches in the strike zone in 2010, by far the lowest percentage of his career, which has steadily declined since 2005. Of course, that’s just a 24 game sample which really means nothing…but it does tell you what he did for 24 games. It just doesn’t tell you what he’ll do for 120, or whatever constitutes a “full season” for Nick Johnson.
The most often-mentioned suitor for the veteran first baseman, if you want to call anyone oft-mentioned, is the Chicago Cubs. With a guy like Johnson in your lineup, you probably want to surround him with guys that can compensate for his lack of power, and so he probably doesn’t profile very well to be a good addition to the Cubs’ aging lineup. If Adam Dunn doesn’t come cheaply enough, though, they may be forced to move on to the likes of Johnson, as MLBTR suggests.
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, among the biggest problems for Johnson is the other guys on the market that he’ll have to go up against. With Dunn, Konerko, Pena, Aubrey Huff, former Cub Derrek Lee, Russell Branyan and perhaps most importantly Lance Berkman in the pecking order before him, Johnson may have to sit around a while before he gets an offer, and once he does, it’ll be for far less than the $5.5 million he “earned” last season. And that’s if a team takes a risk on Johnson’s upside instead of the versatility of Ty Wigginton or the track records of Jorge Cantu, Troy Glaus, and Adam LaRoche, doesn’t have the pieces to trade for Prince Fielder, and hasn’t forgotten that Carlos Delgado is out there and has shown he’s willing to try out on a minor-league deal.
In fact, Johnson may be on the real short end of the stick here. Although there are a lot of teams looking for first baseman/DH types this winter, most of them are just going to swap starters from last year, quite possibly leaving Johnson looking for an invitation to spring training. While I don’t think that will necessarily happen, it could very easily end up that all the first base openings are filled without Nick Johnson getting a guaranteed contract. It all depends on whether a team wants to take a risk on his health, and right now, as ever, that’s not looking too good.
The only teams that could really afford to have a light-hitter like Johnson in a traditionally power-position is a team that’s getting big production from other areas. That doesn’t really scream “Cubs” to me, but I’m not Jim Hendry (and I thank the good Lord every day for that). Teams that could use a guy like Johnson need to have power threats already.
The problem is, there’s already a light-hitting first baseman who plays better defense, has a good eye, and has a better injury history: Lance Berkman. Teams that may consider Johnson would probably consider Berkman first since he’s essentially a more reliable Nick Johnson who swings the bat more. Helping Johnson, though, is that he actually has a reverse platoon split that has held pretty true throughout his career including 2009, hitting .289/.422./.435 against lefties and .263/.394/.446 against righties. Berkman, of course, has a well-documented proclivity for hitting only righties at this stage in his career with the same diminished power that has plagued Johnson. As silly as it sounds, Johnson’s advantage over Berkman may be his ability to play every day.
If the Red Sox eventually miss out on the Adrian Beltre bidding, they may be forced to scramble for a corner infielder and give Johnson a look with the idea of moving Kevin Youkilis back to third, although they’re probably reluctant to do so. If the Red Sox have an interest in Johnson, though, it’ll be for the same reason their AL East archrivals gave it a try in 2010: to get runners on base in front of their big hitters. Adding another grinder to that lineup in front of Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz could be a tantalizing opportunity for the Sox.
Another team of interest could be the AL-champion Rangers, who aren’t quite sure what they’ve got in rookie Mitch Moreland and could look for an insurance policy. The good thing about that arrangement is that it gives the Rangers the ability to rest both Johnson and Moreland, with the idea being to keep Moreland effective and keep Johnson healthy. The problem is of course carrying two left-handed first basemen, neither of whom is particularly powerful. Depending on how they utilize Johnson, that could hamper the Rangers’ power game, essentially replacing Vlad Guerrero with Nick Johnson. The Rangers, though, I think might be a good fit for Johnson. Slot him behind Elvis Andrus and move Nelson Cruz to cleanup and the Rangers would still have a powerful lineup with an on-base machine after the young speedster and setting up RBIs for Josh Hamilton and Cruz.
Really, the thoughts on Nick Johnson are the same as they were last offseason, except this time there is more competition. He will sign for less and should probably go to an AL team so he can log some at-bats as a DH to keep him healthy (or so the thinking goes). When it’s all said and done, though, Johnson could be left out in the cold, meaning the first team that gives him an invite could end up with a terrific addition sometime in February.
Make no mistake about it, Nick Johnson could be a real force for the right team, like he could have been for the Yankees in 2010, but the risk may be prohibitive for anything but a non-guaranteed invite. The risk is probably worth a couple million, not much more, and for a guy who is all-but-guaranteed to get on base 40% of the time, that’s not a bad deal. It just comes down to how much confidence one team has in Johnson’s ability to stay on the field.
After all, he couldn’t miss two seasons in a row…could he?