In a season already loaded with storylines, here’s yet another one to ponder as the year rolls on: What kind of a future does Kelly Johnson have with the Blue Jays? Since being acquired from the Diamondbacks last August, Johnson has provided stability to a position that had been severely lacking under the Aaron Hill regime of the previous two seasons.
Johnson was a free agent this past offseason, and after the market wasn’t quite as inviting as his agent may have hoped, he accepted the Blue Jays’ offer of arbitration to guarantee his return to the club for the 2012 season. In mid-January, the two sides agreed to terms on a one year contract worth $6.375 million, giving the Blue Jays a reliable second baseman for the season while also giving Johnson another crack at free agency as a 31-year-old. The deal didn’t come without some uproar, as fans less familiar with the Major League Baseball salary arbitration system pointed to his .222/.304/.413 (.717 OPS) slash line in 2011, and asked, rather loudly, how such a performance is deserving of such a significant salary.
Now three weeks into the season, the naysayers have been silenced, as Johnson has been the Blue Jays’ most productive hitter early on. While his .246 average entering Wednesday isn’t spectacular, he has been incredibly disciplined at the plate, with a team leading 18.4% walk rate – yes, ahead of even Jose Bautista. Power has always been a big part of Johnson’s game and that trend has continued, as his 213 ISO is second on the team, behind only Edwin Encarnacion. While it’s far too early to look at his defensive metrics for this season, he has passed the eye test with flying colors, emphasized by his ridiculous backhand glove flip to first base against the Royals last weekend.
In summary, he’s been really, really good. FanGraphs has Johnson at 0.8 WAR already, while Baseball Reference views him in an even brighter light, crediting him with 0.9 WAR. We are 10.5% through the season entering Wednesday’s game against Baltimore, which puts Johnson on pace for 7.6 WAR or 8.6 WAR, depending upon whose system you prefer. “On-pace” is often a silly phrase, particularly when extrapolating from such a small sample, but it can give an idea of how well a player has performed. 4-5 WAR is typical for an All Star-caliber season, while 7-8 WAR is the range for an MVP-type campaign. Early season disclaimers aside, any time a player on your favorite team is performing on that level, you have to take notice.
Such production is both a blessing and a curse for a team like the Blue Jays, who, by all accounts, are on the fringe of playoff contention, but may not necessarily see the promised land this year. As previously mentioned, Johnson is playing out a one-year contract, which means someone, Toronto or otherwise, will be paying for this performance next year and beyond. Without a doubt, the Blue Jays front office would have greatly preferred to see this production while under a team-friendly long-term contract or during a season in which postseason baseball was more of a guarantee.
If Johnson keeps up this pace, or something close to it (which, given his tremendous 2010 season, is very possible), what does Toronto do with him? It’s doubtful Johnson’s camp would have interest in working on an in-season extension so long as he continues to play as well as he has, so the Blue Jays appear to have two choices: trade him at the deadline if the team is out of contention, or keep him until the offseason and pay him on the highly competitive open market.
With the lack of talented second base prospects in the system, the trade deadline option seems like a rather poor idea on first glance. In reality, it comes down to timelines. If the Blue Jays’ front office feels like their window to contend for championships opens in 2014, perhaps they’re hesitant to give Johnson four years, as he’d be an expensive league-average player in the latter half of the deal when the team is seeking those playoff berths. If that is the shared belief of the front office, then a trade becomes more of a viable option. It’s impossible to suggest what kind of a return the team would get four months in advance, but it’s fair to say it would be substantial if he continues to produce like he has here in April.
If the Blue Jays prove to be legitimate contenders this season and either make, or only nearly miss, the playoffs, then the team is almost forced to make a genuine effort to re-sign Johnson, though nothing is guaranteed with the demands he could have and the competition from 29 other teams.
To get a better of idea of how much he might cost, we need to look at contracts given out to other above average second baseman over the past few seasons, and try and find the best comparables.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the top five contracts given out were to players still under team control, as savvy front offices don’t usually let their elite talent reach the open market as free agents. Johnson’s situation is a bit different from most of the second baseman on the list though, as he has experienced a very inconsistent career, and is already on his third team, something no other player on the list can compare to. Kinsler is a consistent MVP-caliber player, while Infante and Hill were mostly average players before receiving those contracts, so the three should be quickly ruled out as comparables.
The remaining four deals averaged 4.75 years in length, but were also given out to players who averaged only 29.3 years of age. With Johnson entering his age 31 season in 2013, some of that length can be shaved off, with three years – or perhaps three years with an option – being more logical targets. The salary is highly dependent upon his total production – which we don’t yet know – but as an estimate, let’s says he slightly exceeds his career-best 2010 season, and finishes at 6.0 fWAR, the same number Brandon Phillips achieved before signing his mega deal. Phillips’ popularity in Cincinnati and historical success (he averaged 4.0 WAR in his six full seasons) earned him the length of the deal, but the annual salary of $12 million was due mostly to his huge 2011 season and is a number I feel would be a fair comparable for Johnson should he perform to the 6.0 fWAR estimate I placed upon him. While that number may seem awfully high, the baseball economy is on the rise, and teams aren’t afraid to spend money on talent.
Should the production continue, would a three-year, $36 million deal plus an option be too much for Alex Anthopoulos to pay? With Johnson’s inconsistent history it’s certainly a bit of a gamble, but if the team proves to be a contender, the lack of a viable in-house alternative almost forces his hand.