Many in the Atlanta Braves community – from the average fan, to the Braves front office, to Chris Johnson himself – want Chris Johnson out of Atlanta. But what are the chances it will actually happen outside of an outright release? In my opinion, it ain’t looking good.
The reasons for this are many, but first let’s look at how we got to the point where Chris Johnson replaced Melvin Upton as the scape goat of the Atlanta Braves.
A Walk Down Memory Lane
A little over a year ago, it was rainbows and puppies for Chris Johnson and the Frank Wren led Braves. Wren handed a three-year, $23.5 million contract to “a solid player at a tough position to man” according to Mark Bowman’s fluff piece written at the time. According to Bowman, Johnson responded with the warm fuzzies of getting “to realize his childhood dream” of playing for the Braves:
“It’s pretty cool,” Johnson said with a wide smile. “Without the dollar figure or anything, just hearing them say they want to have me around for three years after this, that is pretty cool in itself.”
Meanwhile, in the real world, many of us were shaking our head in disbelief. Just before the contract was announced, Johnson had wrapped up the first month of the 2014 season slashing .231/.260/.330 (62 wRC+). Prior to the 2013 season, he slashed .276/.315/.430 in his career, and according to wRC+, he was an exactly average offensive player at the plate (100 wRC+).
Outside of the much discussed at the time “empty average” (due to his low walk rate, high strikeout rate, and mediocre power) and high batting average on balls in play (BABIP; .394 for the season compared to .347 in his career up to that point), there were other obvious concerns, chiefly the extremely poor defensive grades (-41.1 UZR and -53 DRS through 2013) and base running grades. Also, lest we forget, he limped down the stretch in 2013, finishing off with a pedestrian September of .273/.319/.398 (98 wRC+) with a more career normal .338 BABIP. Some saw this as an expected regression, with much of his 2013 being not much more than an extended period of good fortune.
That September also included another important event in determining Chris Johnson’s value, the infamous helmet throw that lead to a shoving match with Terry Pendleton in the dugout. Ever since that day, many have read everything Chris Johnson has done or said in a negative light. He is now seen as a clubhouse cancer instead of a guy who plays with a lot of passion. He is the guy with the dreaded “pattern” of emotional instability. Not helping his value were other tantrums just before and after the extension. The one just after the extension led Fredi Gonzalez to pull him from the game as he splintered a bat and one of the fragments hit Gonzalez.
The “Half-Uggla” Extension
At the time of the extension in early May 2014, I was shocked. Days before it was announced, I remember thinking Johnson was a valuable piece despite his poor performance in April because he was still in arbitration: if his performance didn’t pan out in 2014, the Braves could simply cut him at the end of the season.
I was not alone in my shock. The day after the extension, Gondee at Chop Country said even if Johnson could maintain close to his offensive performance from 2013, his defense made the contract a poor one, or a “half Uggla” as he called it, due to the lower financial obligation compared to the Dan Uggla extension that had already turned well south.
“Like the Uggla contract, the Braves will regret this deal before it’s over,” Gondee foretold. “I would argue that the team would be better served by letting Johnson remain in arbitration, and assess his offense and defense from year to year while being content with paying him more if he can once again exceed his career norms. Johnson is an average hitter and a below-average fielder, that’s not rare enough to guarantee a big contract.”
Also, as much of a head-scratcher as that contract was, many including myself, did not think it was too bad because of the lower dollar value for a guy many pegged to average roughly 1.5 to 2 fWAR a year. The AAV was only $7.8 million, which is roughly the cost of one win on the free agent market, and if Johnson had another year similar to 2013, his arbitration raise was likely to be close to that. He made $4.5 million in his second year of arbitration as a Super-Two, meaning he had earned four years of arbitration raises instead of just three.
Unfortunately, Gondee – and the rest who panned this deal from the beginning – were only partially correct. Johnson’s value has completely sunk to near nothingness.
Looking back, it is easy to see how the shortsightedness of the Braves lead them to this point, and it is easy to see why Chris Johnson is challenging to move – to put it nicely. But to make it even more simple, here is a list.
Top 5 Reasons Chris Johnson’s Contract is Untradable:
- Performance: Year-to-date, Johnson has a .258/.297/.342 slash line in 128 Plate Appearances. That’s good for a 77 wRC+, meaning he is creating runs at a clip 23% below league average. Granted, that is too few plate appearances to draw any predictive conclusions, but there are two other issues. First, it is consistent with his performance last year .263/.292/.361 (82 wRC+) across 611 Plate Appearances. Second, the lack of plate appearances is because the Braves have more or less publicly given up on him improving.
- Contract amount: The $7.8 AAV didn’t seem that bad at the time because it is relatively cheap considering where Johnson was in the arbitration process and the free agent market value of a Win Above Replacement (WAR), which currently stands at roughly $8 million according to Fangraphs. The problem is that Johnson’s contract escalates each year ($6 million in 2015, $7.5 million in 2016, and $9 million in 2017). If he could be worth just one WAR, he’s not a complete loss in terms of value. However, he has been worth exactly 0 WAR since he signed the contract, and his performance is declining, which makes spending more than league minimum a bad move.
- Contract Years: Outside of the dollars it would cost, some team might take a chance on him down the stretch based on his great 2013 and really good performance against lefties if it were not for the contract length. If he were making $6 million this year as a third year arbitration player who could be DFA’d at the end of the season, I have no doubt he could be moved. However, the Braves gamble in guaranteeing years (at not much less than he would have gotten in arbitration if he were to play near his career averages) backfired big time. These extra years are bricks they hung around his neck that are significantly weighing his value down.
- Defense: Johnson’s defense has actually been a touch better the last couple of years. Unfortunately, this makes him a slightly below average defender. Maybe if he played top notch defense, some teams could see value in him moving forward despite the offensive issues and the contract. However, teams are not going to overlook the offensive struggles of a guy who can only play the corners, and can’t even do that well.
- Attitude: As addressed above, even outside of performance and contract issues, Johnson has the stink of an attitude problem. Johnson, in some ways, is similar to Gomes. He is a veteran who hits lefties well, righties poorly, and is a defensive liability. Unfortunately, even outside of Gomes much smaller contract guarantee, Gomes has the attitude label of “leader” while Johnson has the attitude label of “liability.”
Glimmer of hope? Nope!
The one redeeming feature of Chris Johnson’s game is that he has hit well against lefties, really well. So maybe just maybe if some team is desperate for a player who is serviceable in the field and can platoon and pinch hit, then they might pick him up if the Braves pay most of his contract and don’t ask much in return. This is very little to ask, and seems workable in theory.
I decided to test it, though, by doing a little research to find similar players to Johnson. I looked for players who have at least 150 plate appearances against righties and 150 plate appearances against lefties from the beginning of the 2014 season through July 20th, 2015. I then looked for anyone in that list with at least a 115 wRC+ against lefties (a safe point at which I can say the person is above average) and no more than an 80 wRC+ against righties (a safe point at which I can say the person is definitely below average).
The result was a list of only 15 players:
Hitters Who Hit Left-Handed Pitching Much Better: 2014-15:
|Player||Team||wRC+ vs. Left||wRC+ vs. Right||PA vs. Left||PA vs. Right||wRC+ Overall||BsR (baserunning)||Defensive WAR||Total WAR||Age||Position||Contract|
|Chris Johnson||Braves||162||54||177||557||79||-2.9||-3.7||-0.2||30||3B/1B||$6 million in 2015, $16.5 million through 17|
|Rajai Davis||Tigers||153||80||236||467||103||8.9||-11.7||2.5||34||CF||$5 million in 2015|
|Adeiny Hechavarria||Marlins||137||70||186||737||84||-0.5||11||2.3||26||SS||1st year arb eligible in 2016|
|Juan Lagares||Mets||134||76||160||636||89||2.5||27.8||4.8||26||CF||1st year arb eligible in 2016|
|Danny Valencia||Blue Jays||132||76||198||232||102||-5.6||1.3||1.1||30||3B||$1.7, 2nd year arb in 2016|
|Rickie Weeks||- - -||131||80||207||174||108||0.5||-11.2||0.5||32||2B||DFA'd in June|
|Wilin Rosario||Rockies||130||70||162||425||86||-5.7||-4.4||-0.1||26||C/1B||$2.8 million, 2nd year arb in 2016|
|Danny Espinosa||Nationals||130||73||186||484||89||3.1||10.5||2.8||28||2B||$1.8, 2nd year arb in 2016|
|Welington Castillo||Diamondbacks||128||80||155||443||91||-2.7||16.2||2.8||28||C||$2.1 million, 2nd year arb in 2016|
|Xander Bogaerts||Red Sox||120||80||257||681||92||2.2||2.7||2.9||22||SS/3B||1st year arb eligible in 2017|
|Alex Rios||Royals||119||73||193||513||85||1.2||-11.7||0.1||34||RF||$11 million in 2015|
|Collin Cowgill||Angels||118||70||171||188||93||3.6||9.3||2.4||29||OF||$1 million, 2nd year arb in 2016|
|Jonny Gomes||Braves||117||45||269||228||84||2.2||-17.7||-0.9||34||LF||$4 million in 2015, vesting option|
|Jordy Mercer||Pirates||116||72||186||667||81||0.7||12.8||2.3||28||SS||1st year arb eligible in 2016|
|Jedd Gyorko||Padres||116||65||164||464||78||-3.9||-2.4||-0.3||26||2B||$2 million in 2015, $32 million through 19|
Now, that is a lot of information, but when I look at this table I notice a couple of things:
- Chris Johnson has the highest wRC+ of the group against left-handed pitchers.
- This is completely nullified by everything else. His contract is horrible, his defense is bad, he’s the second worst hitter against Right Handers, he’s performing worse against both righties and lefties this year compared to last (not in the table, but true), and there are better options out there. I mean, I’d rather take Alex Rios and the prorated portion of his $11 million than get stuck with Chris Johnson. That’s saying something.
Other players have some redeeming qualities:
- Rajai Davis has an overall wRC+ that is average, is a great base runner, and has a shorter, cheaper contract.
- Adeiny Hechavarria is a great defender and still under team control.
- Xander Bogaerts is young and improving.
- Need a guy to platoon at 3B? I’d rather give up a low-level prospect for Danny Valencia than Chris Johnson.
- Jonny Gomes is also on the list, and sadly is performing even worse against righties and lefties, but if I’m grabbing a bench guy who can pinch hit against lefties, I’d rather have him than Johnson because of his contract and his “makeup.”
Negative Value Trade
The bottom line: If I were a GM (which I am not, but it’s fun to pretend), and the Braves offered me Johnson, were willing to pay all of his contract, and didn’t ask for a player in return, I still wouldn’t be interested. I’m not sure any real GM’s would be. (Go ahead, name me some.)
Because of this, I see Johnson as a negative value “asset.” The only possible way the Braves move Johnson is:
- give up a player another team wants more than it doesn’t want Johnson
- take on a player another team wants less than Johnson
Both of these are negative value moves. The only alternative is if the Braves can pull off another miracle like they did with Melvin Upton.
I say look for that miracle move – as it appears the Braves are doing – but if Johnson hasn’t been moved by early 2016 at no higher cost than the Braves taking on a player with a similar salary for fewer years (as they’ve been adept at doing lately), then let Johnson complete his “half-Uggla” journey by releasing him. I don’t really see the point in dragging this saga out any further than that. It gives me no joy to predict this Uggla outcome will be the sad conclusion to the Braves chapter of the Chris Johnson Story. But the writing on the wall that was present the day the contract was signed has only become more clear.