People have been hoping for big things from the Braves' Kelly Johnson for quite some time. The question again this off-season is, "how much longer do you wait?" As bad as his 2009 season was, was it just a down year and can he bounce back to his previous form?
I recently got a sneak preview of the 2010 Bill James Handbook, which had some interesting numbers on Kelly Johnson. For the uninitiated, Bill James predicts the numbers for every major league player in his annual. Here are his predictions for last year and next season for Johnson:
What I find interesting is that his prediction of what Kelly Johnson will do in 2010 hardly budged from the numbers he projected for Johnson in 2009. It's as if the utter failure of a year that was Johnson's 2009 never even existed. If this is how a sabermetric guru like Bill James thinks of Kelly Johnson, I can only imagine it's the same way many Braves' fans feel. No one seems to want to give up on this kid.
I've been quick this off-season to say that I think the Braves will part ways with Johnson, not by a trade, but by non-tendering him a la Marcus Giles, but Johnson is not Giles, and there's perhaps a lesson to be learned here about who Johnson is similar to in the Braves' past. In many ways Kelly Johnson, and the decision we face with him in 2010, is similar to what the Braves were faced with when they cut ties with Mark DeRosa in 2004. This now coveted infielder/outfielder was once a Brave, and we just let him walk. We were trying to be nice guys and let DeRosa win a major league job with another club, but were we thinking like winners when we made that decision. Should we have been more patient with DeRo?
Here is a comparison of DeRosa's 2004 season with Johnson's 2009 season:
|Mark DeRosa 2004||118||309||33||74||16||0||3||31||23||53||1||.239||.320|
|Kelly Johnson 2009||106||303||47||68||20||3||8||29||32||54||7||.224||.389|
It took another year, but DeRosa has been a coveted multi-positional offensive threat ever since. Do we risk giving this up again if we give up on Johnson?
The problem with Johnson is that his value as an offensive producer currently lies in the infield. If we move him to left field, then even those projected Bill James lines do not come close to the kind of offensive production that Atlanta needs from its left fielder. We can't keep him as second base because Martin Prado seems to have established himself as an above average everyday player in a younger, more affordable package.
What kind of hint do we have that Johnson can regain the form he showed in 2007 and parts of 2008? That leads us back to the question, "how much longer do you wait" for Johnson to become that player everyone thinks he can be.
There may be some silver lining to Johnson's 2009 season. He finished 2009 strong, hitting .346/.400/.462 in September and October, but that was in just 30 plate appearances and 4 games started. Perhaps he can serve as a pinch hitter. He hit .368/.520/.579 as a pinch hitter (7-for-19) last year, but again that's too small of a small sample size to get a real accurate feel for how he would handle that role.
His expected arbitration numbers ruin any chances that the Braves can afford to keep him around as a part time player and pinch hitter. Johnson would probably earn upwards of $3 million in an arbitration award this year, and that might make him too costly to keep in a reserve role.
These are the challenges with Kelly Johnson. Will he meet the fans' and the experts' expectations for him? Could he blossom like Mark DeRosa did with enough time in the big leagues? Do the Braves have the payroll flexibility to keep him and wait and see what he will become? Unfortunately for now, with Johnson, there are only questions and very few answers, and only time will tell what the team decides. I'd like to see the Braves hold on to him unless they can find another team who thinks his trade value is twice what it really is.