The increasing importance of Kelly Johnson

Yankees land three on Keith Law's top 100 prospects list
Yankees announce 2014 Spring Training invitees
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

As of right now, the Yankees are heading into the season with only one infielder devoid of injury concerns. Both Mark Teixeira (wrist) and Derek Jeter (leg) are coming off lost seasons while Brian Roberts appeared in only 192 of 648 possible games over the last four years due to a myriad of problems (concussion, hip, hamstring). Even Scott Sizemore, a depth pickup on a minor league deal, is an injury risk after tearing and re-tearing his ACL.

The only infielder who will come to camp without some kind of physical concern is Kelly Johnson, who was signed to be a bench player back in early-December. Now he is expected to hold down an everyday job with Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez no longer with the team. Johnson has been on the DL twice in parts of nine big league seasons, once for Tommy John surgery (2006) and again for wrist inflammation (2009). The elbow reconstruction cost him the entire year, the wrist only two weeks. Otherwise he’s been healthy and durable.

With Cano in Seattle and the rest of his infield-mates questionable, at least until they show up to camp and prove the injuries are behind them, Johnson is going to have to be Joe Girardi‘s anchor on the infield. The guy he knows he will be able to trot out there everyday without having to ask him how he feels before each game. The Rays used him as a super utility guy last summer — the role he was initially expected to fill when he signed with New York — but Johnson has been an everyday player before and he’ll get the chance to be one again. At age 31 (32 next month), he’s the young guy on the infield.

This isn’t just a “he needs to stay on the field” thing either. It’s not unreasonable to question how much Jeter and Roberts can contribute offensively at their age, ditto Teixeira given the nature of his injury. Jacoby Ellsbury was given a boatload of money to set the table from the leadoff spot and the trio of Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Alfonso Soriano will be tasked with producing from the middle of the order. Johnson won’t (or shouldn’t, really) be asked to contribute significantly at the plate, but he needs to be something more than a zero from the bottom third of the order.

With the Rays last year, Johnson hit .235/.305/.410 (101 wRC+) with 16 homers and seven steals in 407 plate appearances. That’s perfectly representative of his game: low average but enough walks (9.8% from 2011-13) and power (16+ homers in four straight years) to remain league average. He’ll even steal some bases (four seasons of 10+ steals). Yeah, Johnson will strike out a bunch (26.3% from 2011-13) and he probably needs a platoon partner (98 wRC+ against righties and 73 against lefties from 2011-13), but what did you expect from a $3M signing? Hopefully Yankee Stadium boosts his offense some.

Given how the offseason has played out and the general uncertainty with the infield, Johnson has already gone from being an excellent part-timer to an important everyday guy. The Yankees and Girardi are going to have their hands full keeping Jeter and Roberts healthy and productive, and in-house alternatives like Sizemore, Dean Anna, and Eduardo Nunez are hardly appealing. The team needs Johnson to stay on the field and provide some offense from the bottom of the order. He’s already climbed the depth chart from role player to everyday guy even before the start of Spring Training and there doesn’t appear to be any more help on the way.

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Yankees land three on Keith Law's top 100 prospects list
Yankees announce 2014 Spring Training invitees
  • Tanuki Tanaka (Formerly Bob Buttons)

    I’ll take perfectly average healthy guy over other options at this point in time.

    • I’m a looser and a trader baby so why don’t you kill me?

      Funny. I was going to reply that we had a lot of that last year. But those guys weren’t even average. Yeesh.

  • gbyanks

    i think johnson getting 500 at bats could put up a good amount of power in yankee stadium. maybe 20-25 hrs. but i see him as a 220/300 if we signed drew we would be able to have johnson as the ultra utility player. maybe even dump ichiro and get another infielder. johnson could be the 5th outfielder if need be.

    • Mandy Stankiewicz

      If he doesn’t run out of gas playing everyday…

  • Nick

    Jeff. Baker.

    • Bill

      Aramis. Ramirez.

      • The Great Gonzo

        Jesus. MarionJoseph.

        • Dale Mohoric

          Hervé.Villechaize.

  • Jarak

    I’ve been saying to friends the last two weeks that retaining Mark Reynolds was a mistake. Despite high strikeout numbers, his glove was better than expected(heck he even played 2nd twice), had power, and now was New York tested. Reminds me of Cashman not talking to Raul and Chavez soon enough last year.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      Glove was better than expected over a short sample. Doesn’t mean a whole lot.

      Reynolds does some nice things, but I think we’ve become a bit too married to certain role players lately. I’d like/would have liked a Reynolds or a Baker on an MiLB but, truly, what I want is a strong competition for these spots and enough depth that we’re not down to Alberto Gonzalez at third in May. Extra bodies that do somethine well help, but I’m not going to cry over not getting a particular one. Everyone has their strengths and warts right now.

      • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

        Everyone wants Reynolds until he goes 3 weeks without a hit and with 45 ks.

        Trust me, I watched him on the Orioles. He’ll have his stretches, but oh my god is he painful to watch most of the time.

        • The Great Gonzo

          And this from a guy who lives in Orioles territory. He knows of ‘painful to watch most of the time’, lemme tell you…

  • Jarak

    Oh, and he’d be the cover for Tex

  • Jorge Steinbrenner

    As opposed to “The Impotence of Kelly Johnson,” which we don’t know a whole lot about.

    • I’m One

      I hear there are treatmens for that. You don’t have to live with it. (Wish that could be said for an IF should everything go wrong.)

    • The Great Gonzo

      Its not a going problem, its a going problem.

  • Jim Is A (Bored) Peckerhead

    Scotty Sizemore.

    • I’m One

      Keeping my fingers crossed.

  • Farewell Mo

    All just place warmers until Headley or Sandoval in 2015.

    • The Great Gonzo

      Why not both!?!?!?!

      • Farewell Mo

        If they could dump Teix and play Panda at 1st base, I’d be down for that but that’s not happening.

  • The Other Matt

    I think we all would like to see the Yankees sign Jeff Baker, giving that he is an excellent platoon option, as a right hand hitter, with Kelly Johnson. There are a lot of question marks on the Yankees infield, either due to health, production, or a combination of both concerning different players. If they can receive solid production from their outfield (Beltran, Ellsbury, Gardner, and Soriano) then it doesn’t press the infield to be overwhelming offensively. You’d obviously want at least decent production from the infield, but I think having McCann now, a catcher who can actually hit, will make a bigger difference than people expect. The biggest question mark with the infield is the health, so much as it is the productivity. As for Kelly Johnson I do believe he can put up a slash of 245/315/420 with regular playing time, and you’d take that any day from a bottom third of the order hitter.

    • Farewell Mo

      As for Kelly Johnson I do believe he can put up a slash of 245/315/420 with regular playing time, and you’d take that any day from a bottom third of the order hitter.

      Right now they have no other options that are better but league average offense and likely below average defense will probably render Johnson slightly above replacement level. Ideally, you want a whole lot more than that from a corner infielder.

  • Delbert Grady

    Mike – Thanks for writing this. Looking at this projected infield mere weeks away from spring training is mind boggling. It really lends to the fan conspiracy that the Yankees just went out and signed some names to shut up the peanut gallery but really don’t care about the composition of the team. Right now, this is not a well put together team. This is by far one of the worst infields in baseball in my opinion anchored by 3 major injury risks well past their primes.

    I’m not saying that they should have gotten Andrus, Headley and Howie Kendrick, but this patch job that is built on the hope that injured players will all suddenly be healthy and that Johnson who couldn’t get a full time job from almost every team is now an everyday player. Frankly, I’m stunned and hearing Cashman lament that the money has dried up tells me the front office still has no clue how to build a ball club.

    They want to roll the dice that Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson are going to start regularly they are welcome to. But when the backlash comes, they better be ready to act instead of saying “well shucks, they all got hurt or underperformed”. You don’t have to be Nostradamus to see that coming.

    Drew isn’t a luxury. He’s a necessity. So is Baker. They don’t have to trade anyone to get them. They should get it done.

    • ALZ

      But they would have to cut someone on the 40 man for Baker. This roster needs flexibility, not a corner infielder who can only play vs lhp.

  • Dale Mohoric

    Sizemore Johnson. A phallic infield partnership for the ages.

  • Eselquetodolosabe

    Out of the hodge podge assortment of infield options assembled, one of the group has to be a revelation this spring. My vote…..Dean Anna. This guy just feels like he’s prime for a feel-good story….had some nice numbers in the minors. Or…..maybe it’s just the name thing. Now batting….Dean….Anna….Anna.

  • ALZ

    I really liked the Johnson signing. He is a 20 hr guy / 600 ab before counting for any YS increases. He is a career 104 wRC+ guy, much better than spending that money on infante who is only a 92 career wRC+ guy, and Kelly is actually younger. Sure I’d rather have Infante, but I don’t think they difference was worth enough to be worth that money.

  • qwerty

    Kelly Johnson could very well be the yankees’s top offensive threat this year.

    • pft2

      He could be the top offensive guy in the IF, which is scary.

      Sign Drew, have him play 3B, move Johnson to 2B to platoon with Roberts and backup Tex at 1B. Drew can spell Jeter at SS when he needs a rest, or goes on the DL. Ryans a defensive replacement for Jeter or Johnson/Roberts at 2B.

  • http://www.comic-book-nerd.com/ SJ Mitchell

    Survive until the trading deadline and we can get infield talent to carry us through to the playoffs. There will be teams that are out of it but won’t want to lose a player to free agency when they can get something in return. Nunez may have problems with throwing errors but he can hit and I’ll be happy slot him in at 2B when Roberts breaks down.

    • pft2

      Why give up someone of value when you can have Drew for the cost of a 2nd round pick.