Francisco Liriano, David Ortiz, Moises Alou, and now Chris Johnson. All four players who were “throw-ins” on a trade that had a fairly popular player leaving town, which sometimes brought wrath on that “throw-in”, who was looked at to be the guy who was lost, often unfairly to the player. In the case of each of the four so far, however, each provided much more for their acquiring team than the guy who was traded.
However Chris Johnson came to Atlanta or the perception of him coming into the season, no one can deny the season that he is having thus far, hitting .335/.371/.474, clearly his best offensive season. So what is Johnson’s future in Atlanta?
Who is he?
When he was acquired, Johnson was intended to be the right-handed portion of a platoon of two offensive-oriented, poor-defense, third basemen with Juan Francisco. Francisco struggled, and Johnson continued to hit, so the Braves moved Francisco in an early June trade to give the job completely to Johnson. He has responded by leading the entire National League in hitting. If he completes the season by winning the batting title, he would be the first Brave to do so since Chipper Jones in 2008. In fact, if Chris wins the title, the Braves will have had three batting title winners since 1991, all three of which are third basemen.
The question with Johnson has always been defense. Johnson had -16, -12, and -11 defensive runs saved in 2010-2012. This season his number is -7 (-1 coming from his time at 1B), likely to be the lowest of any season for Johnson. While these numbers look great, all of his other defensive metrics (zone rating systems, etc.) show Johnson as the same defender as he was before. Johnson has clearly benefitted from playing next to arguably the best defensive player in baseball, Andrelton Simmons. He can focus on coming in on bunts and squibs, playing the line, and using his strong arm.
Going forward, has Johnson earned a spot in Atlanta? For at least 2014, the answer is most likely yes. He will earn roughly $5M in arbitration this year, and he’ll only be in his second year of arbitration, so he will not even be a free agent until after the 2016 season. If he continues to produce offensively and not be too drastic of a drag on defense, Johnson could be looking at a 7-figure salary as early as 2015, something that likely won’t fit into the Braves’ budget.
The money may have to be eaten for a couple of years, however, as the Braves are struggling to produce a 3B in their minor league system. A quick look around the Braves minor leagues shows the following results of third basemen (based on those who have primarily played 3B this season):
Joe Leonard, age 24, AAA, .220/.267/.295
Alden Carrithers, 28, AAA/AA, .278/.376/.369
Edward Salcedo, 21, AA, .244/.307/.392
Kyle Kubitza, 22, advanced A, .257/.374/.429
Carlos Franco, 21, A, .236/.314/.293
Victor Caratini, 19, Rookie, .325/.436/.476
Mike Dodig, 19, Rookie, .194/.247/.264
Dylan Manwaring, 18, Rookie, .125/.222/.135
Ian Hagenmiller, 18, Rookie, .240/.330/.281
Franklin Azuaje, 18, Foreign Rookie, .311/.409/.341
Carlos Vasquez, 18, Foreign Rookie, .222/.305/.282
That’s a pretty putrid grouping outside of Caratini, the Braves’ 2nd round pick this season. He should advance quickly next year, but likely won’t be a serious consideration in Atlanta until 2016, meaning Johnson may have a clear path to playing time for the next couple of seasons, barring a trade.
In the end…
Chris Johnson’s future with the Braves may be cemented into place for the near future. With that in mind, he may be a good candidate for an extension to keep his salary manageable and buy out his arbitration seasons, something along the lines of 3 years, $21M. I truly think he’d likely jump at that deal, but his extension is certainly below extensions for guys like Simmons, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, and Craig Kimbrel, so the team may choose to go season-by-season with Chris. Any way you look at it, Chris Johnson has been one very valuable throw-in!