Third base for the Atlanta Braves. That’s a position that every single one of us has linked with top-tier production for about say 20 or so years. Hall-of-famer Chipper Jones spoiled us at the position, and Chris Johnson carried the torch admirably last season. The big question is whether or not that same type of production is to be expected. Another question is, were something to happen to Johnson, what would be the insurance plan?
Last year, the Braves entered the season with Johnson on the wrong side of a platoon with Juan Francisco. Francisco was eventually traded to the Brewers after Johnson earned the full time role and Francisco earned a spot on the bench. Nobody can doubt that Johnson performed up to his billing offensively. The Lord of BABIP ended the season with a .321/.358/.457 line. The batting average looks amazing, and he legitimately competed for and could have won the batting title, but looking at the line altogether shows that it was rather empty. There are very few walks and not much power linked to that batting average, but overall it is still a productive line—albeit driven a bit too heavily by one factor.
I briefly mentioned his BABIP, that of a near historic .400 level – coming in at .394 to end the season. Johnson hit an eye-popping amount of line drives last season, leaving one to believe he could regular be of the high BABIP variety at the plate. I too agree that this is the type of hitter Johnson is, but I do not agree with it being a replicable number. Even if we believe Johnson hits line drives at an insane rate and will hit for a high BABIP, a number in the .360 line is even being generous given the latest historical data on BABIP.
Johnson will convert more balls on play into hits than the average player, by a lot, but I would be hard pressed to say I expect him to even come near last year’s mark. This will probably bring his batting average down, and, unless the power comes back, it makes him a player to be concerned about giving 600 plate appearances to. He plays poor defense and does not walk enough to warrant a batting average under an elite level for a team with World Series aspirations.
If Johnson comes back down to earth and proves that he is not worthy of everyday play, or even worse that he proves that he is and then gets injured, what is the Braves' backup option? At the time, it looks like it is either Ramiro Pena or Tyler Greene. The Braves have been big fans of the former first round pick Greene for quite some time, but he’s no regular third base option. Pena would play tremendous defense at the position, but his bat is hardly quality of a third baseman even if you believe last year was a breakout for the career utility infielder. To be concerned with third base is being realistic; to be confident in it is to be hopeful.
Even at a 127 wRC+, a mark that is above Brian McCann and Jason Heyward’s career mark, and is exactly even with Freddie Freeman’s career mark, Johnson still was worth just 2.8 wins. That is far from poor, but it shows how much of his value is tied to his offense. He essentially needs to be what Freeman has been with the bat for him to even be a regular contributor. If he drops back down to his career 108 mark, he becomes much closer to a replacement level player. The Braves need to worry about their options at third base, because right now it is a guy they were willing to put into a platoon at this time last year and almost nothing else behind it.