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.

email

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.