Replacing Matsui with a familiar face


Nick JohnsonWith the returns of Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui still up in the air, Ken Rosenthal mentioned yesterday that the Yanks have gotten in touch with Nick Johnson about a return to New York. Johnson surely can’t handle the outfield, which means that the Yanks are thinking about him as a fallback option at DH.  Keith Law recently ranked him as the 13th best free agent, right behind another RAB fave in Mike Cameron.

The Yankees are certainly familiar with Johnson, having drafted him in the third round way back in 1996. Baseball America ranked Nick among the top 18 prospects in baseball every year from 1999 to 2002, and he was long considered the heir apparent to Tino Martinez. It’s easy to forget that Larry Bowa’s nephew put up a .284-.422-.472 batting line for the Yanks as a 24-year-old in 2003 (406 plate appearanes), only to be banished to Montreal the following offseason as part of the Javy Vazquez trade.

Johnson’s calling card is the military style plate discipline that’s allowed him to post a .414 OBP (!!!) with more walks (432) than strikeouts (410) over his last 2,597 plate appearances. Only Jayson Werth (4.50) and Kevin Youkilis (4.42) saw more pitches per plate appearance in 2009 than Johnson (4.38), so even when he makes an out, he’ll go down with a fight.

Of course, the real name of the game with Nick Johnson is injuries. He’s been on the disabled list eight times in his career, spending a total of 565 days on the shelf. That a little more than three full seasons. The biggest culprit was the broken femur that required three surgeries and cost Johnson the entire 2007 season, though an outfield collision with Austin Kearns is as fluky as it gets. More recently, Johnson missed most of the 2008 season with a wrist injury he suffered on a swing. The injury required surgery, which will usually sap a hitter’s power for about a year.

Predictably, Johnson’s power output dropped off a cliff after surgery, as he picked up just 32 extra base hits (24 doubles, 2 triples, 8 homers) in 574 plate appearances last season. He slugged just .405 with a .114 IsoP, which is Scott Podsednik territory. Thankfully, there’s statistical evidence that suggests Johnson’s power might be on the way back. Let’s tabulate:

2009 22.2 43.4 34.4 6.2%
Career 22.4 43.6 34.0 13.0%

You see that? Johnson hit grounders, fly balls, and liners last year at the same rate he has his entire career, yet it resulted in fewer homers.  Roughly 10% of all the fly balls hit in the big leagues last year turned into homers, yet Johnson was well below that. As you can see from his hit charts, Nick definitely hit plenty of deep fly balls, so it’s not like he turned into a bloop singles hitter. It’s reasonable to expect Johnson to progress back to the mean next season, dumping a few more balls beyond the fence. Heck, Joe Mauer had a 6.5% HR/FB in 2008, and we all saw what that statistical correction was like. Obviously, you shouldn’t expect Johnson to go that nuts, but a return to his normal levels seems more than reasonable.

Unlike Juan Miranda, Johnson wouldn’t require a righthanded caddy for the Jon Lesters and David Prices of the world. He has a reverse split just like Matsui, hitting .316-.440-.444 against lefties last year (.281-.420-.389 vs. RHP), and .292-.424-.438 against southpaws in his career (.266-.394-.450 vs. RHP). If you’re a fan of Matsui’s clutchiness (and who isn’t), then I feel obligated to mention that Nicky J.’s a career .279-.457 (!!!)-.470 hitter with runners in scoring position. Johnson’s a very well rounded hitter that uses all fields, and even though he won’t match Matsui’s raw production, he’s still an above average offensive player.

The biggest problem in all of this is that Johnson is a really, really good defensive first baseman, so you know other teams are going to be hard after him as well. His UZR wasn’t good last year (-5.6), but it was the first time since 2003 he was in the negatives. As a DH, Johnson’s defensive abilities would be going to waste, yet he and his agent would (should) want to compensated for that ability. It’ll be tough to pry Johnson away from the starting first baseman jobs that will surely be offered to him this offseason, though DH’ing will probably keep him healthier.

You’re not going to find a bigger Nick Johnson fan than me, but that’s not the only reason why I’d love to see him in pinstripes. He fits the Yankee mold of patient hitters (imagine Johnson and Nick Swisher hitting back-to-back), and coming to the homer happy Yankee Stadium might beef up his offensive output more than a normal rebound from last year’s drought would. Rosenthal’s sources said Johnson is seeking a multi-year deal, which is certainly doable under the right circumstances. The bottom line is that the Yankees will need to replace Matsui’s production should he go elsewhere, and Johnson’s a pretty good fallback option.

Photo Credit: Wilfredo Lee, AP

Categories : Hot Stove League


  1. Brooklyn Ed says:

    Johnson would be the ideal #2 hitter behind Jeter and infront of Tex. his .416 OBP in the lineup would do wonders.

    could someone remind me who did Cashman traded Johnson for? I blame Giambi for blocking him.

  2. JSquared says:

    I would welcome Nick Johnson with open arms. But… I don’t see Nick Johnson signing as a DH though. If he signs as a DH, it will probably effect his next contract. If he puts up ridiculous Defensive Numbers, he could probably get mroe money.

    • JMK aka The Overshare says:

      Agreed. I’d say it’s a long shot that he’d sign as a DH. Why would he when he can likely find a deal that will allow him to play 1st for multiple years? If he signed as a DH (and the presumption is it would be a multi-year deal), he greatly reduces any possibility he’d ever play the field for the next contract, and thus, his overall value.

      Even beyond that, would the Yanks want to sign a severely injury-prone DH to a multi-year deal? He’d probably offer similar production to Matsui, who can likely be had for a one-year deal. Too much risk for similar production (Matsui) and better future flexibility.

      I just don’t see it.

      • JMK aka The Overshare says:

        Let me add one more thing, since I totally forgot to mention it: If Matsui isn’t available, I love Nick Johnson as the DH. Just please, not for longer than 2 years and a team-option. No way you can offer more than two guaranteed years.

      • Amol says:

        Even if you want to sign Matsui, talking to Johnson (and Jim Thome, for that matter) probably helps the Yankees get the best deal. It’s a good move by Cashman to make it apparent that he has quite a few options at DH.

    • Ed says:

      With Johnson’s injury history, being a DH may help his career. A healthy DH is probably more valuable than a good 1B that will spend a good chunk of time on the DL every year.

  3. radnom says:

    Nick Johnson is the first prospect I remember actually being excited about (way back in middle school). He still has one of my favorite swings of all time.

    I feel like if they go Johnson at DH they either need to
    a.) Have a reasonable back-up plan for when he gets injured.
    b.) Upgrade LF significantly. What sort of contract is Johnson looking at? Is it completely unreasonable to think that the cost of Matsui and Damon in 2009 would be roughly equivilent to the cost of Johnson + Holliday? (Matsui – 9 mil, Damon-12, Johnson-3 + incentives, Holliday-20) I’m not suggesting they go this way, but I can see the 2010 salaries being in the same ballpark for both pairs.

    • Brooklyn Ed says:

      Have a reasonable back-up plan for when he gets injured.

      Miranda? Johnson could mentor him.

      • radnom says:

        I was thinking more like a righthanded bench-type player who can eat up lefties. Upgrade the bench and then if Johnson goes down you have this hypothetical player sharing the DH spot with Miranda.

    • The Artist says:

      If they plan on rotating the DH spot, they won’t need a backup. Just mix those guys in for a few weeks while Nick’s on the DL.

  4. Brooklyn Ed says:

    The biggest problem in all of this is that Johnson is a really, really good defensive first baseman, so you know other teams are going to be hard after him as well.

    how about Johnson patrolling 1B every 6 days and Teixiera being the DH? would that be a problem?

  5. Camilo Gerardo - your inception? fuck perception, go with what makes sense says:

    johnson would be the ideal ugly boston red sock!

  6. J.R. says:

    I like the idea of him as an offensive player. But as a defensive player he doesn’t make alot of sense for the yankees. We already have Tex as an everyday 1B for more than half a decade. God forbid something happens you can always slide Swish over to 1B.

    I don’t see why Johnson would take a contract as a DH that would significantly hurt his next contract. My guess for a DH only is that he would want 3 years. With his injury history, that just isn’t worth the gamble.

    • J.R. says:

      Compound that with the fact that you may be able to get Matsui on a 1 year 8-10 contract, there is little upside in signing Johnson.

      If anything I could see the Yankees using Johnson as a smoke screen/ threat to Matsui.

      • Hence, he’s their back-up plan for DH. I, however, disagree with your saying there is “little upside” in landing Johnson. He’s an on-base machine.

        • J.R. says:

          I agree with the backup part.

          My “little upside” was supposed to be in comparison to Matsui. In that, Matsui is the preferred FA and that Johnson would be a step down.

        • J.R. says:

          So I was looking for another plan B DH and the list is thin.

          Via MLBTR

          Hank Blalock (29)
          Jason Giambi (39)
          Vladimir Guerrero (35)
          Aubrey Huff (33)
          Hideki Matsui (36)
          Gary Sheffield (41)
          Matt Stairs (42)
          Mike Sweeney (36)
          Jim Thome (39)

          The only other option that I could think of would be to try and trade for Dunn and see what it would take.

          • K.B.D. says:

            Dunn would be great if he never saw the light of day on defense. His -36.3 fielding runs kills his production. If he’s a full time DH, he’s probably a 4.5 WAR player.

            • JMK aka The Overshare says:

              Right, but it would take a lot to nab Dunn, too much, in my opinion.

              • K.B.D. says:

                I’d definitely give up Zach McAllister (and I count myself as one of his biggest fans) and would consider Austin Jackson. If it’s Z-Mac, toss in a mid level prospect. If it’s A-Jax, they get filler.

                • Easy now. I’m Adam Dunn’s biggest fan but I would definitely not give up Austin Jackson for just one guaranteed year of Adam Dunn and I’m not sure if I’d do McAllister, either.

                • JMK aka The Overshare says:

                  For Z-Mac, hell yeah. Jackson? Ummm…no, no I wouldn’t.

                • J.R. says:

                  It’d be a sick lineup

                  1. Jeter
                  2. Damon/Cameron/TBD
                  3. Tex
                  4. Rodriguez
                  5. Dunn
                  6. Posada
                  7. Cano
                  8. Swisher
                  9. Cabrera

                  That lineup would rake.

                • K.B.D. says:

                  Well, I only said I’d consider Jackson.

                  My willigness to McAllister is mainly because I don’t see how he fits into the Yankees rotation in two years. His lack of a legit secondary pitch will really hurt him when he tries to attack AL lineups. But what do I know.

          • DCBX says:

            I’m a bit of a novice with some of the statistical analysis I see going around on here, but I have to say that my gut feeling says Thome > Johnson if they can get Thome for a 1 year deal.

  7. Free Mike Vick says:

    I like Nick Johnson a lot….but damn he is always hurt these days.

    but if he can stay healthy and you put him in NYS…good things should happen.

  8. Voice of Reason says:

    I heard some chatter awhile back about Rick Ankiel, but haven’t heard anything in forever. Is he a no-no because he’ll probably require multiple years? Could he play left?

    • K.B.D. says:

      He could play left. UZR has him as pretty good in limited time there last year.

      However, I don’t think he’s a real option considering he’s been pretty terrible as of late. Most of his stats have trended in the wrong directions. Strike out rate up, isoP down, average down. He’s really been hindered recently by swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone and making contact less. That’s a bad combo. I say stay away.

    • pat says:

      He’s a no-no because he went .231/.285/.387 in the NL last year. 76 ops+. Yuck.

    • No thank you. He can’t stay healthy, his on base skills are poor, and his power seems to be declining. No thank you.

  9. Salty Buggah says:

    I want Johnson very much. His OBP would be great in the Yanks lineup, even if he still doesnt hit for power.

  10. Chris says:

    What sort of contract do you think he could get? I’m trying to think of a contract that could be used as a comp, and can’t come up with one.

    • The Artist says:

      Given his injury history, less than someone who stays healthy. Nothing hurts your production more than not showing up for work.

      I LOVE the idea, I’m as big a Nick Johnson fan as Mike is. But I don’t see a clear, obvious fit. But I subscribe to the rotating DH idea, so maybe that’s why. I’d LOVE to have Nick on the bench and as a DH 4 days a week, but I’m not sure he’d go for that.

  11. Januz says:

    There is one reason why Johnson might come here for a year……. The opportunity to win. After playing in places like Washington and Montreal (Some of the WORST spots in the majors), it might be nice to come to Yankee Stadium, try and get a ring, and have the added bonus of playing in the Stadium, and get to hit in a lineup that has Jeter, Tex, and Arod

  12. The Artist says:

    Left field appears to be out. He’s only played 2 games there in his career, and that was all the way back to when he was a Yankee.

  13. Jim says:

    Nice piece to wake up to. Sign him up.

  14. dan says:

    I always liked Nick Johnson — mostly because I was expecting Jason Giambi the A’s MVP, but that’s another story entirely. I don’t think Nick left NY on good terms though (I can remember him making comments a while back about being passed over / disrespected by the organization). I also don’t think he would consider coming back just to be a DH. He is super injury prone so maybe he’d be open to it to lengthen his career; but that’s a tough sell at this stage of it. As the artist said earlier, it’s not a clear obvious fit when looked at from all angles.
    I’m pretty sure I’m going to the ONLY person to say this but I’m intrigued by Aubrey Huff as a reclamation project. He had a crap year, but had a nice one the year before and can be a doubles machine when he’s hitting. That said, the rotating DH concept gains more and more traction as winter approaches.

  15. Nick says:

    I like the Johnson idea. Is his injury concerns any more than those of Matsui? Possibly, with the bad knees, Matsui doesn’t exactly have a clean bill of health. A Jaret Wright type contract, where the extra years are conditional on number of plate appearances would be ideal. Is there much of a market for him? If he’s looking multi-year, I can’t see very many teams looking to sign him.

  16. Short Porch says:

    Short Porch likes Nick Johnson.

    Sign him for two years.

    This would really wear out the opposing pitchers:

    Jeter 3.8 P/PA
    Johnson 4.24 P/PA
    Tex 3.9 P/PA
    A Rod 4.0 P/PA
    Cano 3.3 P/PA
    Jorge 3.9 P/PA
    Swisher 4.26 P/PA
    Cameron 4.0 P/PA
    Gardner 3.9 P/PA (Melk 3.7)

    Cano of course is the outlier. But at this rate, three turns through the order and we are at 105 pitches. Ouch.

    Cameron one year until Austin’s ready.

    Nick the Stick has two years to show he’s healthy — he’s even tradeable in the middle of year two if he is.

  17. whizkid says:

    Love the idea… Johnson $4-5M x 2yrs, Cameron $7-8M x 2yrs, replaces Damon & Matsui for half the price, still have $15-20 M for Lackey if necessary… in case Sox land Halladay as rumored. Think 100gm@DH, 20@1B for Johnson, keeps him healthy plus cushy RF fence evens out with a fulltime 1B gig at a pitcher friendly park? Also @2yrs gives us flexibility for A-Jax and Montero. I`d go with the following…

    1. Jeter-SS
    2. Gardner-CF
    3. Texeira-1B
    4. A-Rod-3B
    5. Cano-2B
    6. Posada-C
    7. Johnson-DH
    8. Swisher-RF
    9. Cameron-LF

    Gardner`s speed should negate the DP risk and keep a guy on base for Tex. Move Cameron up to 7 and insert Cervelli when Posada DH`s. Melky super-sub in OF, defensive upgrade for Swisher in late-innings..

    • There is no way that Brett Gardner should bat second consistently in any Yankee lineup until he proves he can keep up a .340+ OBP for more than 284 PAs at a time. If he were on this team, Nick Johnson would be in the two hole from the start. Also, if Mike Cameron were on the Yankees, he’d be the CF and someone else–probably Melky–would be playing LF.

      FWIW, I’d order those players like this:
      1. Jeter
      2. Johnson
      3. Tex
      4. Nails
      5. Posada
      6. Cano
      7. Swisher
      8. Cameron
      9. Cabrera

    • Chris says:

      Johnson should be able to get more than $4-5M per year for two years. I would think he’d be in the same range as Abreu’s contract. He’s better than Abreu, younger, but more injury prone.

  18. Frank says:

    I’d love the Yanks to acquire Johnson…Josh Johnson

  19. Bo says:

    I think they’d rather have Matsui back. Tough to replace his 20+ homers and 90 rbi’s and protection in the 5 spot. Johnson is far from a middle of the order hitter.

    Some team will need him at 1b anyway and Im sure he’d like to play 1b everyday.

    • DF says:

      Johnson’s career .402 OBP says otherwise. His only concern is health. When healthy, he’s clearly one of the better hitters in the league.

  20. I love the idea, too, but I think, like Mike and the Artist and others have admitted, that it doesn’t really make much sense and we’re being swayed by how much we, as fans, like Nick Johnson. I don’t see why he’d sign to be a DH, especially with a team that not only has a top-notch first baseman but also seems intent on getting its aging regulars at least some rest-time at DH in the coming season(s). The guy would basically have to throw his hands in the air and say ‘well I can’t stay healthy, time to stop trying to play every day and just give up entirely on playing the field.’ I’m a yuge Nick Johnson fan and I’d love to pencil Nick into that #2 spot in the lineup as much as the rest of you guys, but I just don’t see it happening.

  21. A.D. says:

    Question is outside of future contract considerations, does Nick Johnson care about being a 1B?

    From the way things are lining up it seems like Johnson might have a shot DH with the Yankees, a clear contender, or signing with lesser clubs i.e. the Mets, Giants, Diamondbacks.

  22. themgmt says:

    Sign NJ. Back him up with Miranda/Jorge Vazquez.

  23. crapula says:

    I always liked Nick Johnson. Maybe it’s an irrational Nick Swisher kind of thing. Can’t have too many Nicks.

  24. DonnieBaseballHallofFame says:

    Can you sign a guy and place him directly on the 60 day DL? That would be what a signing of Nick would do. With that said I like Nick, I root for him to succeed as long as he is not on the Sox. But Nick is built like a human potato and bruises like a banana.

  25. Robert Ballard says:

    I’m a huge Matsui fan and have been since he signed in 2003. As a result, I’m inclined to hope that if they do replace him with Johnson or someone else (they can’t trade him he doesn’t have a contract) that he will retire as a Yankee on top.

    I’m afraid realists would probably tell me that won’t happen.


    I have been saying it ever since the postseason wrapped up. BRING NICKY J. BACK!! An OBP like that is typical Yankee baseball. Now don’t get me wrong I love Damon and Matsui but age is catching up to them. By signing Johnson (DH) and Holliday (LF) we get what we have been wanting for years…. YOUNGER!!!

    Sorry Hideki and Johnny… We appreciate everything you have given us throught the years but this is a business and if we are going to over pay for a DH and LF then we should give the money to someone who puts up as good if not better numbers and is younger.

  27. Frank DeFonda says:

    My Opinion, I think Johnson is a gamble and wouldn’t go there.
    Would this be a nice way to bring back Nady into the fold. I don’t think Swish is going anywhere, we have Nady and before injury I thought he was showing himself fine.

    Of course this is all based on life without Matsui which I haven’t excepted yet! If Matsui wants to play and he goes the extra mile to condition himself, I like to see him back. I know he’s 36 but if he has the will. He, as we all know, has the Bat!

    BTW Thanks to The New York Yankees for such a thrilling season, The Yes Network for there exceptional on screen and air personalities, They trump everyone!

    Here’s to 2010 and number 28!

    Frank DeFonda

  28. Joseph M says:

    Nick Johnson! Look who doesn’t love this guy but he gets hurt all the time, and when he gets hurt, he gets hurt. You could never plan anything around him, he’s a check swing away from missing 60 games.

  29. pon says:

    “The bottom line is that the Yankees will need to replace Matsui’s production should he go elsewhere, and Johnson’s a pretty good fallback option.”

    It is wrong. If Matsui goes elsewhere, it means that the Yankees use the rotating DH system, which needs no full-time DH. In this case, Johnson can play 1st base only when Teixeira plays DH. Other days, DH is one of old players or Teixeira. Johnson cannot play DH in most games. This is the case when Matsui goes elsewhere.

    If the Yankees let Matsui walk and use Johnson instead of Matsui, the Yankees cannot win the WS again. Bay or Holliday can be an option, though they are expensive.

  30. [...] this rumor going around that the Yanks are looking into signing Nick Johnson. Some blogs think that a Johnson signing is a smart idea. I, on the other hand, don’t. Now, don’t [...]

  31. [...] I think everyone’s preference is to bring Hideki Matsui back on a one year deal, and we’ve already discussed Nick Johnson as a backup plan. However, every good backup plan needs a backup backup [...]

  32. [...] excels at it (.426 last year, .402 career). We’ve already written extensively about Nicky J. here and here, so you know we’re in favor of bringing him aboard. Posted on Thursday, [...]

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