Jun 7, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Atlanta Braves third baseman Chris Johnson (23) fields the ball in the first inning of the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Trading Post: Replacing Chris Johnson

The other day, I wrote the following:

Chris Johnson is actually a very highly ranked 3rd base threat… there’s truly no place to even find an upgrade for him.

Today, I’m going to explore this statement in further detail… and there’s a reason for doing so:  defense.

Chris Johnson has indeed been the surprise of the Justin Upton trade – hitting for average, hitting with some power, and even cutting down on his prior strikeout levels.  He’s 28 years old, and he’s on pace to exceed career highs in average, strikeout rates (in a good direction), walk rate,  and possibly runs scored – despite having shared time with Juan Francisco until this month.  He has been annihilating left hand pitching (.385; .441 when on the road) and beating most every other member of the team when facing RH pitching (.288).  Johnson is also hitting better on the road (.336 vs. .298), which the Braves sorely need.

But it’s the defense.    Bear with me a second:  this won’t be too painful:  Fangraphs calculates something called the RZR – Revised Zone Rating.  This represents the percentage of balls hit into the typical zone that a fielder should be able to cover that are converted into outs.  There’s another stat called the DRS – Defensive Runs Saved.  This represents the number of runs saved while on defense.  If that number is negative, then is represents runs that should have been saved.

Chris Johnson‘s RZR is 67.8%.  His DRS is -6… and which projects to -14 or -15 for the full year.

Think about these for a minute:

  • If a ball is hit in Johnson’s direction, there’s a 32.2% chance that the runner will reach base safely.  That’s like getting a .322 batting average for balls that should be outs.
  • The DRS number indicates that in the 46 games played this year at 3rd, Chris’s defensive play yields an extra run roughly at the rate of once every 8 games.
  • So no matter how good the offensive production is, you actually have to subtract the defensive liabilities to realize a player’s true worth.

Is there a worse third baseman in baseball?  Yes.  His name is Miguel Cabrera (-8 DRS).  I think he’s probably safe, though.  Other bad ones this year?  Aramis Ramirez (-8 DRS), Mark Reynolds (-8 DRS), Michael Young, Alberto Callaspo, Mark DeRosa, and a couple of others.  Don’t forget:  if CJ had been full-time, he would have a DRS of -8 or -9 by now.

Here’s a good contrast for you:  the best DRS number in the majors stands about 40 feet to Johnson’s left:  Andrelton Simmons (+22).  He has saved 22 runs this year – so far!

Early last year, the Braves replaced Tyler Pastornicky with Simmons at shortstop.  The reason?  Defense.  That literally replaced the worst DRS with the DRS.  Could they try to do this again?  Who could they try to go for?  Here are some of the better defenders that could be available:

  • Luis Valbuena (Cubs).  A good option.  .353 OBA, 6 HR, .242 avg is tolerable with huge walk rate (14%).  Super 2 player, on first Arbitration year.  The bad?  Cubs probably want to keep him (duh).
  • Conor Gillaspie (White Sox).  Similar to Valbuena in numbers, with normal (8.3% walk rate).  Should be gettable.
  • Nick Punto, Luis Cruz or Juan Uribe (Dodgers):
  • Punto is older – thus probably more attainable.  Hit well early; not so much since mid-May.  .332 OBA isn’t enough.
  • Uribe is expensive…and older… but producing better than Punto.  Whether either player can handle a full-time gig is up for debate.
  • Cruz?  Hit .297 in 2012.  .127 this year. Scary bad.  No thanks.
  • Miguel Tejada (KC).  Yes, 39-year-old Miguel Tejada.  I desperately want to say “____, no”, but he is hitting .288, so he made the list.  Still:  No.
  • Luis Jimenez (Angles). batting .232 in 24 games and a 33.3% strikeout rate.  Pass.
  • David Adams (NYY).  Worse than Jimenez, which is saying something.
  • Lonnie Chisenhall (Indians).  Pass.
  • Kyle Seager (Seattle).  If Seattle would be willing (not very likely), then this could be a nice solution.  He’s hitting a ton and provides average (think barely above Chipper Jones) defense.  He’s a lefty, but I doubt that you’d spend the prospects it would take just to platoon him with CJ… though the numbers kinda demand that.

Kind of an underwhelming list, eh?  Yeah – that’s exactly why I wrote what I quoted above.  It is actually hard to find an upgrade.

Other names you’ve heard… and the reasons they won’t work:

  • Will Middlebrooks.  Recently demoted because he isn’t hitting.  Turns out his defense isn’t that hot either.  Better than Johnson, but not by a lot.  Would nonetheless require a top prospect back to Boston.  No.
  • Chase Headley.  In case you hadn’t noticed, the Padres are tied for second place in the wild wild NL West.  They still have a more-than-decent shot.  So despite his contract situation, Headley isn’t going anywhere.
  • Aramis Ramirez.  Lost his power, and his defense is Chris-Johnson-bad.  This would be a downgrade.  I sure would not have said that last year.
  • Nick Castellanos (AAA, Detroit).  I would actually kill for him.  But Detroit wants a bona fide closer to justify giving him up.  Apparently, they are talking to Philly about Papelbon, which unfortunately makes entirely too much sense for both sides.
  • Mike Olt (AAA, Rangers).  The luster was fading from his rose, but a .205 AAA average 2013 is apparently the result of vision problems.  With that diagnosed, he is improving once again, but still not major league ready quite yet.  Oh, and the Rangers want something akin to Giancarlo Stanton for him.
  • Martin Prado (DBacks).  Just seeing if you’re paying attention.  No way Kevin Towers would go there.

Look, if the Braves were hitting more consistently OR if Ramiro Pena were healthy, then Johnson’s defensive woes could be tolerated.  But that’s not been the case, and the Braves haven’t exactly been running away with the NL East, despite getting all possible benefits from an unhealthy and non-productive Nationals team.  And with Bryce Harper starting his comeback, you have to assume that Washington will be better in the second half.  So it is definitely worth a look around to see what can be done.

But whether “better” can be found is an open question.

Tags: Atlanta Braves Chris Johnson Ramiro Pena

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