Potential Off-Season Targets: Kelly Johnson


With the 2011 season over, the old saying, “There’s always next season,” instantly becomes all Mets fan’s credo. But before we can think about riding the 7-train out to Flushing again, there is a whole off-season to project and pontificate about. Considering the amount of holes the Mets will have, this coming off-season holds a lot of importance.

In this new on-going series, Rising Apple will analyze potential off-season targets for the New York Mets. Today’s target at-hand is free agent second baseman, Kelly Johnson.

Kelly Johnson has been a major surprise, disappointment, and elite player over the past five seasons. After being selected 38th overall by the Atlanta Braves in the 2000 draft, it wasn’t until 2005 did Johnson make his debut in the Major Leagues. The then outfielder was called-up in late May of that year, and impressed the Braves organization by posting a .241/.334/.397 line with 9 homeruns, 40 RBI, and 46 runs in 334 plate appearances.

Despite the fine rookie season, Johnson was sidelined all of 2006 with a lingering elbow injury, which then needed Tommy John surgery. Given his arm injury, the Braves decided to shift the natural outfielder to second base, where the shorter throws would have less of an impact on his arm. In 2007, his first season back from TJ surgery (and at second base), Johnson flourished–hitting a .276/.375/.457 line with 16 homeruns, 68 RBI, 91 runs, and 9 stolen bases. Granted, the newbie infielder struggled a bit in the field (-5.0 UZR/150 in 1153.3 innings) but his offensive output made-up for it (3.6 WAR).

Johnson posted a similar season in 2008, owning a .287/.349/.446 line with 12 homeruns, 69 RBI, 86 runs, 11 stolen bases, and -7.0 UZR/150. The two good years at second base started turning some heads in the league, and putting Johnson in the upper shelf of National League second baseman. But 2009 wasn’t so kind to Johnson. After posting two consecutive seasons with double-digit homeruns, Johnson slumped to the tune of a .224/.303/.389 line with just 8 homeruns, 47 RBI, 68 runs, and 7 stolen bases. While his -1.1 UZR/150 was his best showing career-wise at second base, his underwhelming offensive statistics out-shined his defensive improvement.

There’s no doubt the infielder struggled offensively in 2009, but some of his peripherals supported future success. His .165 ISO was better than his .159 IS0 the season before (when he hit 12 homeruns and had a .446 SLG). Also, Johnson’s .247 BABIP was the fifth worst in the National League–a truly unlucky rate. In addition, the hitter’s 15.6% K% still remains as his finest strikeout rate in his career. Given his improved defense and eye, as well as his maintained power and unlucky balls in play, Johnson still had a bright future in the Majors.

Promising peripherals aside, the Atlanta Braves had enough of Johnson, and granted him free agency. The Arizona Diamondbacks signed the fledgling infielder to a one-year, $2.35 million deal, and handed him the keys to their vacant second base job. Johnson did not disappoint. Johnson enjoyed a career year, posting a .284/.370/.496 line with 26 homeruns, 71 RBI, 93 runs, 16 stolen bases, and a spectacular 7.7 UZR/150. Johnson’s .212 ISO was also the best rate in his career, and his 5.9 WAR (worth $23.5 million) ranked tenth best in the National League.

The Diamondbacks happily re-signed Johnson to a one-year, $5.85 deal, and hoped the now-elite second baseman would continue his success. However, similar to his disappointing 2009 season, Johnson was unable to duplicate his explosive 2010 statistics in 2011. Johnson slumped to a career low .222/.304/.413 line. Despite the terrible line, the infielder still poked 21 homeruns and swatted his second best ISO (.191). Johnson’s poor batting average could be linked to his terribly unlucky .277 BABIP and career-high 26.6% K%. The infielder also made contact with just 71.9% of pitches he swung at (another career low). Luckily for Johnson, his 3.1 UZR/150 was enough to save his WAR (2.2), but defense aside, 2011 was an extremely disappointing–and on the surface–career-threatening season.

Going into the off-season, the 30 year-old Kelly Johnson still projects to be the best free agent second baseman on the market. And this is even with his discouraging 2011 campaign. Regardless of the dearth of available second baseman, the infielder will still be very lucky to command a decent two or three-year deal. It might even be worth his while to take a one-year deal to prove 2011 was an aberration.

In regards to the Mets, it is very possible that the team could become one of Johnson’s suitors despite already having Daniel Murphy, Ruben Tejada, and Justin Turner on their roster. But if the Mets decide to use Murphy in the outfield, and relegate Tejada and Turner to bench duties, Johnson could be a nice fit in the Mets infield. Johnson’s two straight seasons of twenty-plus homeruns (and double-digit stolen bases) would be a warm addition to the Mets lineup. The former-Braves also has experience hitting in various spots of the lineup, so Johnson could potentially hit second, fifth, or sixth for the Mets. In addition, while Tejada might be the better defensive player of the two, Johnson’s two straight seasons of positive UZR/150 proves that the Mets wouldn’t be sacrificing defense by signing Johnson. At age 30, Johnson is still young enough where a two-year deal wouldn’t be unintelligent. If Sandy Alderson could nab Johnson on the low (given his 2011 season), Kelly Johnson could be a major boost to the Mets potentially vacant second base position.

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