2014 Season Review: The Perfect Fit Who Didn’t Fit

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

On paper, signing Kelly Johnson to a one-year contract worth $3M last offseason made perfect sense for the Yankees. They had questions at both second and third bases, plus he’s a dead pull left-handed hitter who figured to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch. When Robinson Cano signed with the Mariners a week later and Alex Rodriguez was eventually suspended for the entire 2014 season, Johnson went from shrewd signing to essential piece.

Johnson, who turned 32 in Spring Training, hit an unsexy yet effective .235/.305/.410 (101 wRC+) with 16 homers and seven steals in 118 games for the Rays last year. He also saw time at the three non-shortstop infield positions as well as left field. That kind of production and versatility would be at an absolutely bargain at $3M. Given his 2012-13 spray chart …


Source: FanGraphs

… there was every reason to believe Johnson would hit a few cheap homers in the Bronx and see his offensive numbers tick up a bit. His struggles against left-handers were a concern but there were ways to minimize his exposure to southpaws. Add in the fact that he was very familiar with the AL East after spending part of 2011 and all of 2012 with the Blue Jays before joining the Rays 2013, and Johnson was a damn near perfect fit. The Yankees were wise to jump on him so relatively early in free agency.

Of course, as so many people are eager to point out, baseball is not played on paper or spreadsheets and things don’t always go according to plan. It would be really boring if they did. Despite his versatility and left-handed pull power, Johnson did not work out as planned for the Yankees. It took all of three games for him to lose the starting third base job — that had more to do with Yangervis Solarte‘s early-season performance than Johnson’s — and by midseason he had been relegated to full-time bench duty.

The first two weeks of the season actually went quite well for Johnson. He was able to stay in the lineup despite Solarte’s dominance because Mark Teixeira‘s injury created an opening at first base, and he went 10-for-35 (.286) with two doubles, a triple, and three home runs in the team’s first 12 games of the season. The three homers came in a five-game span against the Orioles and Red Sox. Johnson played as expected (better, really) for the first two weeks of the season. It was wonderful.

And then it all went south. Johnson went 3-for-26 (.115) in the team’s next 12 games and it took a set of back-to-back 2-for-4 games at the end of May to get his season batting line to .217/.286/.409 (93 wRC+) on June 1st. That’s not all that far off from his 2013 production, but he cooled off big time following the hot start and the move into Yankee Stadium hadn’t help his production as hoped. By the time June rolled around, Johnson was playing sparingly at first and third bases with the occasional start at DH.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

A strong two weeks in mid-July — 8-for-27 (.296) with a homer, four walks and zero strikeouts from July 6th through the 21st — wasn’t enough to save Johnson’s job with the Yankees, so, a few hours before the July 31st trade deadline, he was traded to the rival Red Sox for close friend Stephen Drew. Johnson finished his time in pinstripes with a .219/.304/.373 (91 wRC+) batting line and six homers in 77 games. That includes a .224/.300/.402 (94 wRC+) line with five homers at home and a .213/.308/.340 (86 wRC+) line with one homer on the road.

Johnson spent most of his time with the Yankees at first and third bases, though he see spot duty in both outfield corners and at second base. His defense on the infield corners was pretty terrible and that probably has a lot to do with inexperience. Coming into the season, Johnson had playing only 18 career innings at first base and 118 career innings at third base. All of them came with the Rays last season. The inexperience doesn’t absolve him of blame, he misplayed some balls any big leaguer should make, but it’s not something we can ignore either.

I do wonder if Johnson would have had more success with the Yankees if they had kept him at his natural second base position. That’s where he has spent most of his career and is presumably the most comfortable. Maybe keeping him there would have helped his offense somehow. These guys are only human. Learning a new-ish position is demanding and his game could have suffered elsewhere. This stuff happens all the time all around the league. Oh well. I’m just thinking out loud.

Johnson playing sparingly for the Red Sox (-12 wRC+ in ten games) before being shipped to the Orioles (111 wRC+ in 19 games) in a late-August waiver trade. Baltimore was looking for some extra third base depth following Manny Machado’s season-ending knee surgery. He did end up making their postseason roster but only got two at-bats in October. Johnson made a ton of sense for the Yankees coming into the season thanks to his versatility and left-handed pop, but it didn’t work out for several reasons and the team moved on at the trade deadline. That’s baseball.

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Yankees send Kelly Johnson to Red Sox for Stephen Drew

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

For the first time since the Mike Stanley trade in 1997, the Yankees and Red Sox have hooked up for a trade. The Yankees have acquired Stephen Drew and $500k from their division rivals in exchange for Kelly Johnson, the team announced. Brian Cashman told reporters Drew will take over as the team’s everyday second baseman.

Drew, 31, has hit a weak .176/.255/.328 (56 wRC+) with four homers in 145 plate appearances this year after signing at midseason. He has been much better of late, hitting .237/.341/.474 (126 wRC+) with two homers since the All-Star break. After the long layoff and the lack of a proper Spring Training, it took Drew a little while to get going with the bat. He is a dead pull left-handed hitter who might be able to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch.

The Yankees had interest in Drew in each of the last two offseasons, though he declined to sign with them because of questions about how much he’d play as well as his position with Derek Jeter entrenched at short. Drew has never played a position other than shortstop — literally zero innings somewhere other than short (and DH) at both the big league and minor league level — so the second base experiment might be messy. He could always see time at short whenever Jeter needs a day off, of course.

Johnson, 32, is currently on the disabled list with a groin injury. He hit .219/.304/.373 (88 wRC+) with six homers in 227 plate appearances this season while playing mostly first and third bases. The Yankees signed him to be at least a platoon player at the hot corner, but Yangervis Solarte‘s season-opening hot streak and Mark Teixeira‘s injuries forced Johnson to spend a lot of time first base. The signing made perfect sense on paper but it just didn’t work out.

Like Johnson, Drew will be a free agent after the season, so this is a swap of rental players and the rearranging of some furniture. Drew is a very good defender at short but we have no idea how he will fare at second base. Brian Roberts, who was designated for assignment today, was giving the team neither offense nor defense in recent weeks, so it won’t take much for Drew to be an upgrade. As he did with his other trades this month, Cashman grabbed a potential upgrade at minimal cost. Hard to complain about that.

Injury Updates: Pineda, Roberts, Johnson

(Rob Carr/Getty)
(Rob Carr/Getty)

Mark Teixeira returned to the starting lineup and hit a homerun last night after being sidelined for eight days with a mild lower lat strain. That was good to see. Here is another round of injury updates, courtesy of Bryan Hoch, Chad Jennings, and George King.

  • Michael Pineda (shoulder) threw a 45-pitch simulated game yesterday and it went “really good.” He’ll begin an official minor league rehab assignment on Sunday. “He will make a start somewhere. Four innings and 60-65 pitches will be his next move. Not exactly sure where it’s going to be — they were talking about that today — but it will be a regular game,” said Joe Girardi.
  • Brian Roberts is worn down and will get the next few days off. The 36-year-old has played 91 games this year, his most since 2009. He averaged 48 games played from 2010-13. Being worn down at this point of the season isn’t much of a surprise. “He’s been beat up pretty good this year physically,” said Girardi. “He’s dealing with soreness that players have. Legs get beat up, you hit balls off your feet, shins. It’s all part of it.”
  • Kelly Johnson (groin) will play in a minor league rehab game or two and is expected to come off the disabled list when eligible next Thursday. Girardi said he may give Johnson more time at second base down the stretch. “It’s something I could think about. If we feel there is a need to put him there we will put him there,” said the skipper.

Injury Updates: Tanaka, Sabathia, Pineda, Tex

Like one of these guys is still healthy. (Presswire)
Like one of these guys is still healthy. (Presswire)

Here are some updates are various injured Yankees, courtesy of Chad Jennings, Dan Barbarisi, Bryan Hoch, Brendan Kuty, as well as the team itself.

  • Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) still has some pain after receiving his platelet-rich plasma injection. “He’s improved, but he still feels it on a daily basis. It’s not good that he’s still feeling it at this stage. (We’ll just) go day by day, week by week and adjust accordingly,” said Brian Cashman.
  • CC Sabathia (knee) had his clean-up surgery as scheduled yesterday and everything went “as planned,” the Yankees announced. “I don’t know if we’ll see him. Obviously he’s not allowed to travel for a few days, so we’ll probably see him when we get back from the road trip,” said Joe Girardi.
  • Michael Pineda (shoulder) was scheduled to throw two innings and 30 pitches in a simulated game today, but it was rained out. He threw two innings inside and will stretch it out to 45-50 pitches in the coming days. If all goes well, Cashman said Pineda would return to the rotation “sometime in August.”
  • The decision whether to place Mark Teixeira (lat) on the disabled list will be made tomorrow. “It’s just seeing how he feels after three or four days, and then we’ll decide if we think it’s going to be in the near future that he would play, or if we’re going to need the 15 days. If it’s going to be 12, 13, 14 days, it probably make sense to get a player,” said Girardi.
  • Kelly Johnson (groin) has a Grade I strain and is not expected to miss more than the minimum 15 days.

Yankees place Kelly Johnson on 15-day DL, recall Chris Leroux

The Yankees have placed Kelly Johnson on the 15-day disabled list with a left groin strain, the team announced. Right-hander Chris Leroux was called up from Triple-A Scranton to replace him on the roster. Bruce Billings was designated for assignment to clear a 40-man spot for Leroux.

Johnson left last night’s game with what was initially called a cramp, but he went for an MRI that showed the strain. Leroux was scheduled to start for the RailRiders today, so he’ll be able to give the Yankees a bunch of innings out of the bullpen if needed following last night’s 14-inning marathon. Hopefully the three-man bench, eight-man bullpen setup will only last a few days.

Update: Kelly Johnson heading for MRI on groin injury

12:37am: Johnson felt something in his groin and is heading for an MRI. That’s never good. Sounds like he’ll be out a few days at the very least.

10:20pm: Kelly Johnson exited tonight’s game with some sort of injury. He took the field in the top of the 11th before Joe Girardi and the trainer came out to check on him. He tried to run before leaving the game. Replays showed Johnson pulling up lame running out a ground ball in the previous half-inning. Hopefully it’s just a cramp. We’ll find out soon enough.

2014 Midseason Grades: The Infielders

Even though it is not really the halfway point of the season, there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. This week we’ll hand out some simple and straightforward grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. These grades are totally subjective. We started yesterday with the catchers, now let’s move on to the infielders.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Mark Teixeira — Grade B (A+ for Foul Territory)

There were a lot of questions about the infield coming into the season in general, but especially Teixeira. The Yankees’ first baseman missed almost all of last season due to a tendon sheath injury in his wrist that eventually required surgery, and wrist surgery can be very problematic even after the player has been cleared to play. Remember, Teixeira started Spring Training late and has still felt soreness during the season. It has caused him to miss a game or two here and there. (His only DL stint was hamstring related.)

Despite that, Teixeira has been the team’s most consistent and productive power hitter this summer, coming into the All-Star break with a .241/.341/.464 (120 wRC+) batting line with a team-leading 17 homers. His power output (.222 ISO) is right in line with his last full healthy season (.224 ISO in 2012), which is definitely encouraging after the wrist surgery. Most importantly, he’s done most of his damage against right-handed pitchers (130 wRC+), who used to give him the most trouble. Is he Teixeira of old? No, of course not. That guy isn’t coming back. But he’s returned to his pre-surgery ways and been a much-needed force in the middle of the lineup.

Weirdly enough, the biggest issue for Teixeira this season has been his defense. He’s already committed six errors this season, his most since 2004, and while errors are not the best way to evaluate defense, most of them were plays we’re used to seeing Teixeira make. I think his scooping at first has been fine. It’s the hard-hit balls he used to turn into outs that are now eating him up. I think it’s a combination of rust from the lost 2013 season and a decline in his skills. Either way, Teixeira has definitely been a positive for the Yankees this year, especially when you consider he’s coming off major surgery.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Brian Roberts — Grade C

There was no way the Yankees were not going to have a massive drop off in production at second base this year. Robinson Cano was the best player at the position last year and has been for several years running, so by definition he is irreplaceable. Roberts was not exactly a popular choice as Cano’s replacement given his long injury history and the fact that he wasn’t all that productive even when healthy ways. The Yankees love veterans though, especially AL East proven guys.

Roberts has remained remarkably healthy so far this year — he missed a handful of games with a back issue in April, but that’s it — while being more than a total zero at the plate. His .241/.306/.376 (87 wRC+) batting line comes with the occasional homer (five), the occasional stolen bases (seven), the occasional walk (8.4%), and always a very long at-bat (4.04 pitches per plate appearance). Roberts has been fine defensively at second if not an asset. He’s a perfectly capable stopgap and No. 9 hitter who has been asked to bear more responsibility. Will Roberts hit a wall later in the year after not playing a full season since 2009? I have a hard time thinking his second half will be better than his first, honestly.

Derek Jeter — Grade C

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Like Teixeira, Jeter was coming off a major injury. He missed just about all of last season with a series of leg problems, including a twice-fractured ankle. Add in the fact that he is a 39-year-old shortstop — a demographic that is not well-represented throughout history — and things were definitely stacked against the Cap’n coming into 2014.

Jeter’s season has been underwhelming statistically but I don’t it’s worst case scenario stuff. Like I said, a 39-year-old shortstop coming off a major leg injury could have been really, really ugly. Jeter is hitting .272/.324/.322 (80 wRC+) overall, so his power is non-existent, but he does rank third among qualified AL shortstops in OBP and is only five points away from leading. Is it vintage Jeter? Absolutely not. But relative to the league average shortstop (.308 OBP and 87 wRC+), he’s been passable.

Defensive is another matter. Jeter’s glovework has never been good and at this point he’s barely mobile. The old “he makes the plays on the balls he gets to” rhetoric doesn’t even apply anymore. He’s booted more grounders and made more offline throws this season than I can ever remember. Inside Edge data says he has converted only 46.2% of “likely” plays into outs, which are defined as plays that would be make 60-90% of the time on average. He hasn’t make anything tougher than an “even” play (40-60%) either. It’s been ugly.

The total package, offense plus defense, has not been good for the Yankees this year. At the same time, I’m generously giving Jeter a C instead of a D or F because he has played better than I expected coming off the ankle injury at his age. Maybe I’m just a giant homer. The Cap’n has not been good this season though, certainly not by his standards, but it could have been much worse given everything that happened last year.

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Kelly Johnson — Grade D

The Yankees have put Johnson in a tough spot for most of the year — playing once or twice a week, usually at an unfamiliar position like first or third base — but, at the same time, he knew what he was walking into when he signed as a free agent over the winter. He has hit .214/.299/.380 (87 wRC+) with six homers in 211 plate appearances, including a disappointing 83 wRC+ against righties and an even more disappointing 87 wRC+ at Yankee Stadium. Five of his six long balls have come in the Bronx.

Johnson’s defense has been a problem, though again, he has mostly played out of position — he came into the season with only 18 innings at first base and 118 innings at third base. He has spent 199.2 innings at first and 255.1 innings at third this year, committing nine total errors and not looking particularly graceful either. Johnson was a shrewd signing and a wonderful fit for the roster on paper — left-handed hitter with power who can play the three non-shortstop infield positions as well as left field — but it just hasn’t worked out halfway through the season.

Yangervis Solarte — Grade B

Man those first eight or so weeks were fun, weren’t they? I like to think I’m well-versed in the minor leagues but even I had not heard of Solarte before the Yankees signed him as a minor league free agent over the winter. It goes without saying that no one expected to take over as the starting third baseman for the first eight weeks of the season, during which he hit .299/.368/.458 (128 wRC+) in 229 plate appearances. Solarte was a godsend for a beleaguered offense.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The Solarte Partay came to crashing halt after that, unfortunately. He has hit .111/.238/.130 (10 wRC+!) in 63 plate appearances since, earning him a demotion to Triple-A Scranton. Yangervis has owns a .255/.338/.382 (101 wRC+) line in 288 trips to the plate overall and holy crap, no one expected that. Even if he never hits again, those first eight weeks made the signing more than worth it. That’s even considering Solarte’s occasionally shaky defense. He was a great story and a tremendously productive player into early-June. His days as a useful MLB player may have already come to an end, but boy did Solarte contribute in a big way when given an opportunity early this season.

Brendan Ryan — Grade C

Giving Ryan two years plus a player option this past offseason definitely flies under the radar as a lolwtf offseason move. I mean, yeah, I get it. Jeter was a major question mark, but geez. Ryan spent the first five weeks of the season on the disabled list with a back injury, and he’s nothing more than a no-bat (.235/.273/.255, 43 wRC+ in 55 PA), good but no longer elite glove infielder who plays maybe once a week. It’s far from the best use of the roster spot, but the Yankees are stuck with him. It’s just a weird fit. Even weirder are all those times Ryan played first base while Jeter manned short. He’s fine as the 24th man on the roster. Just a pricey and not at all versatile (in terms of bringing different things to the table) insurance policy for Jeter in his final season.

Zelous Wheeler, Dean Anna, Scott Sizemore — incomplete

These three guys have combined for 61 total plate appearances — Anna has the most at 25 — and have hit a combined .232/.246/.438. Most of the power production comes from Wheeler, who has hit two homers in his 20 plate appearances. He is currently with the team in that revolving door 25th man spot while Sizemore is stashed in Triple-A awaiting an injury. Anna has already been designated for assignment (to make room on the roster for Zelous) and claimed off waivers from the Pirates. I wonder how many more guys will cycle through this role in the second half.

* * *

There were some serious concerns about the infield coming into the season. Teixeira and Jeter were huge question marks following their injuries and the same was true of Roberts given his history. Johnson was the sure thing on the infield at the start of camp. The defense has been hideous — Yankees’ pitchers have a .258 BABIP on ground balls, the seventh highest in baseball (league average is .244), and even more grounders would sneak through for hits if not for the club’s aggressive shifting — and that was fairly predictable.

The infield has, by and large, been more productive than I expected, mostly because Solarte was awesome for a while and Teixeira has shown no lingering issues with the wrist when it comes to raw production. Roberts is the new Lyle Overbay — the best of all the bad players and therefore giving off the appearance of being good — and Jeter’s Jeter. He’s untouchable. The Yankees have some internal options who may improve the infield, namely Triple-A Scranton second baseman Rob Refsnyder, but either way  it’s clear they could use some help in the second half. Beefing up third base is an obvious upgrade area.