When Justin Upton was traded to the Atlanta Braves in January 2013 Chris Johnson was an afterthought, and a throw-in. Upton was the key acquisition and I’m sure many Braves fans had never even heard of Chris Johnson before seeing his name as a part of the trade. At the beginning of his Braves career he was even forced to platoon with free-swinger Juan Francisco. Eventually Johnson grabbed hold of the starting third base position and never looked back. Francisco was traded and Johnson finished the season with a .321/.358/.457 batting line that kept him in contention for the battling title late into the season. After the season Atlanta pegged Johnson as their third basemen of the present and future by rewarding him with a three year $23.5 million extension.
2014 has been a different story. Coming into Wednesday Johnson is hitting .268/.294/.369. The batting average does not look bad at first glance, but the extremely low on base percentage and his limited power make this line particularly troublesome. He also leads the team in a very unfortunate category. By grounding into a double-play in the 4th inning last night he increased his season total to 22, two shy of the Braves single season record.
On the positive side Johnson is finding success against left-handed pitchers this season. He is batting .411/.447/.579 with three homeruns versus lefties, compared to a paltry .236/.259/.322 against right-handed pitchers. Today against Philadelphia Johnson currently sits 0-2 with two walks (progress!). The poor offensive performance, along with below average defense and base running, has been good for -1.1 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball Reference. Bad offense coupled with his inconsistent defensive play means Chris Johnson is not helping Atlanta when they face right-handed pitchers this season. Is it time to find him another platoon partner?
I say yes, and that partner should be Phil Gosselin. So far this season he has proven he can handle second base, left field, shortstop, and third base. For some reason Fredi decided to replace Gosselin with Johnson for defensive purposes late in a game the other day, but to most it is clear Gosselin represents a defensive upgrade at third base.
Gosselin also represents an upgrade with the bat. During his brief stay in the big leagues he is batting .316/.350/.386 in 60 plate appearances. He was also having a career year in Triple-A, batting .344/.379/.487 before being called up to Atlanta. Most notably he was having success against right-handed pitchers, batting .321/.350/.426 in 265 at-bats.
Fredi Gonzalez is a manager who has shown he believes in “riding the hot hand”. Where the Braves stand currently Gosselin’s hand is significantly warmer than Johnson’s against right-handers. With the offense sputtering the time is now to start this platoon. Ride this platoon out for the rest of season and then either find a permanent solution at third base (Kyle Kubitza?), or allow Chris Johnson the chance to turn things around next season.
Deciding to platoon a veteran player is always a difficult decision for a manager. Baseball players are human beings (No matter what Jeff Luhnow thinks) and you do not want to risk upsetting the balance of the clubhouse. Johnson has proven himself to be an emotional leader in the clubhouse, and seems to be respected by his teammates.
Even through his struggles Chris Johnson has always held himself accountable and been forthcoming to the media, he is always willing to talk even after a poor performance. It is unfortunate that his play calls for this change, but when you are quickly fading from the playoff race sometimes you need to shake things up a bit.
Gosselin may be nothing more than a bench utility player in the future, but for now he deserves the chance to show what he can do starting on a more regular basis. Whether or not Fredi agrees with that sentiment remains to be seen.