Kelly Johnson: The Problem No One is Talking About

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.

Apr 14, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Kelly Johnson (2) bats against the Baltimore Orioles at the Rogers Centre. The Orioles beat the Blue Jays 6-4. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

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.

Seven recently signed contracts by second basemen, with WAR from FanGraphs, and contract information from Baseball Prospectus.

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.

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Topics: Aaron Hill, Brandon Phillips, Ian Kinsler, Kelly Johnson, Toronto Blue Jays

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  • talesen

    I believe another option would be to offer a 1 year compensation-qualifying offer at the end of this year.  It’d be a hefty raise but it’s not long term.  Especially if he has a good year.  He could turn that down and try to secure something longer somewhere else but then we get draft pick compensation.

  • http://jaysjournal.com/ Rockshu

    If Johnson continues producing, without a doubt, the Blue Jays will be offering Johnson arbitration. He’s most definitely going to decline, however. I’m not sure exactly how the new draft pick compensation works, but there’s no guarantee we’d receive a pick. I think a player has to have performed at truly elite levels, but again, I’m not as familiar with the new system as I was with the old.

  • http://jaysjournal.com/ Rockshu

     @talesen
     
    If Johnson continues producing, without a doubt, the Blue Jays will be offering him arbitration. He’s most definitely going to decline, however. I’m not sure exactly how the new draft pick compensation works, but there’s no guarantee we’d receive a pick. I think a player has to have performed at truly elite levels, but again, I’m not as familiar with the new system as I was with the old.

  • Offthecuff1

    Sorry kids, but KJ isn’t coming back. Hech will be called up at some point, he’s the SS of the future. He’s destroying Vegas right now (grain of salt) but whats GG defense worth.. Just ask the Rays. Esco’s got 5 years at 5mil per on his deal and while he’s not an all-star he’s borderline and with a contract like that he wont be moved, other then to 2b. That this article or commenters didnt pick up on that is discouraging.

  • http://jaysjournal.com/ Rockshu

     @Offthecuff1
     Hechavarria currently has a .757 OPS in Las Vegas, which is definitely not what I’d call destroying. At best, his bat will be good enough to hit 9th in a lineup — at best. The downside is far worse than that. If the Blue Jays are in contention at the end of the season, there is no way the front office will let Johnson walk with the intention of handing a position to Hechavarria. Won’t happen. Also, Escobar got 2 years at 5M per, with 2 club options at 5M each. That’s way different than a 5 year deal. Please take 5 minutes and check your facts before criticizing someone else’s work. There’s nothing wrong with offering a different opinion, but doing so with an “I’m right, you’re wrong” tone won’t get you anywhere, and won’t get your opinion too many supporters.

  • Offthecuff1

    I should of sounded out the words and been more clear for you but one thing is for certain you’re out in left field and to tell me to spend 5min to check facts yet you have no idea how the new cba has effected arb and compensation. lol Seriously?
     
    I shouldnt have said Hech is destroying Vegas without being clear that I had meant for him and it being Vegas. ie grain of salt. He is always going to be poor with the bat but he is sporting an 800ops, 310ba, 360 obp.atm.
     
    I was however wrong on Escobars deal I thought the contract was 2 and 3 but that’s besides the point and so is that they are options. At 5mil per they are pretty much guaranteed and for a top 5-10 SS / 2b its a steal.
     
    As far as KJ he is not excepting arb, he wants a long term deal, obviously. While he didn’t get it last season there is a better chance because of the lack of 2b next off season he gets it, also if he continues his production a near certainty. The Jays will not receive compensation. The Jays are not going to part with Hech or Escobar, not with this ownership group. Thats just the sad reality of it.