Will Kelly Johnson Be A Blue Jay In 2012?

So long, Kelly

Is it set in stone that the Blue Jays will offer Kelly Johnson arbitration for 2012? I don’t think so.  Here’s why:

This morning I was on Twitter, spitballing about who would be Yunel Escobar’s double play partner in 2012.  Thinking out loud, I suggested that the Blue Jays should bring back Orlando Hudson in a trade with the Padres.

Of course, the Twitteratti had something to say about it.  The vast majority believed that it was a foregone conclusion that the Jays would offer Kelly Johnson arbitration.  The reasoning is that as a Type A free agent, the Jays would garner 2 draft picks should Kelly Johnson decide to refuse arbitration.

But what if he were to accept?

Kelly Johnson is coming off a season in which he earned $5.85 million dollars.  As we all know, players don’t take pay cuts in arbitration.  Should Johnson accept arbitration, he will make at the very least $6 million dollars.

Would I pay $6 million for Kelly Johnson’s 2011 production? Absolutely not.   According to Baseball Reference’s WAR calculation, Kelly Johnson hovered around replacement-level production throughout the season.  If you aren’t familiar with WAR, replacement-level is bad.  But the Twitteratti are quick to point out Kelly Johnson’s upside.  “30 HR pop,” they say.  “The potential for a 3+ WAR season.”

True, Johnson hit 26 HR a year ago, and 21 HR last season.  It’s possible – though not probable – that he could improve on those power numbers as he enters his 30th year.  That said, his 20+ HR pop is accompanied by an OBP of .303 and .304 in 2 of the past 3 seasons.  In other words, he makes outs like it is his job.  A player’s penchant for making outs is often overlooked.  Out-making kills rallies.  It squanders opportunities to move runners over.  It kills the ability to step on a pitcher’s neck when he is on the ropes.  It offsets the net gain from the odd home run here and there.  On top of that, most of his outs are strikeouts – the worst kind of out in baseball.  And we haven’t even taken into account Johnson’s lacklustre defense.

Keith Law had this to say about Johnson in his annual Top 50 Free Agents Report:

Johnson has become an all-or-nothing player over the course of his career, with wild swings in his batting average on balls in play that result in part from trouble maintaining a consistent swing. What saves Johnson is that he works deep counts and has above-average power so that even in a down year such as 2011, he’s contributing something on offense.

He has a sound swing when he’s right, but he tends to lose confidence quickly and overcompensate, especially in two-strike counts. And since he is such a patient hitter, he sees a lot of those deep counts. Once he’s behind, he’s more likely to chase off-speed stuff. He is fringy at best at second base but would be above average to plus if he returned to left field, a position where, in good years, his bat profiles fine. He’s a great high-risk/high-reward candidate on a one-year deal or even a two-year deal with a lower base pay and some incentives.

Alex Anthopoulos will have to do a cost/benefit analysis of what it means to bring back Kelly Johnson.  What is the likelihood that Johnson refuses the Jays’ arbitration offer and finds a team that is willing to give him more money or a longer-term contract?  I would say that the chances of that are minimal.  As GM of the team, would you want Johnson patrolling second-base with his fringy defense and propensity to make outs in 2012 while eating up $6 million of the payroll?

In Orlando Hudson, you know what you are getting: a slick-fielding defender who still has some speed (he had a career-high 19 stolen bases last season) and the ability to get-on base at a reasonable clip.  This fits well into the Farrell-ball philosophy.  Having finished an injury-riddled sub-par season, Hudson is due $5.5 million by the Padres.  The small-market (or at least small payroll) San Diego team would probably love to offload the Hudson contract (one that includes an $8 million 2013 team option with a $2 million buyout).  This would give the Padres a chance to get a long look at their #1 second-base prospect in Logan Forsythe.  Alex Anthopoulos could likely obtain Hudson for a song, while getting San Diego to eat some salary.  A healthy Orlando Hudson could reasonably put up a 2 – 3 WAR season, as he posted WARs of 2.0, 3.7 and 2.5 in his last 3 healthy seaons (2010, 2009, 2007). 

Click to play

Can you imagine a Toronto infield with the panache and flair of Yunel Escobar and Orlando Hudson?  I salivate at the thought.


I concede that in both their primes, Johnson is a better player than Hudson.  That said, I believe in Hudson’s consistency while I don’t believe in Johnson’s ability to recreate the success he experienced in seasons gone by.  To me, Kelly Johnson is an Alex Rios:  sure, Alex had good seasons in 2007 and 2008.  Will he ever do it again? No.

To paraphrase Keith Law from his chat today: Hudson has a longer track record of performance, Johnson has more upside, but far lower probability overall. Risk matters.

As a stop-gap measure, Hudson would serve to help the young pitching staff with his above-average defense and infectious enthusiasm for the game.  He would fit in well with the magic chemistry that exists in the Jays clubhouse.  Even if the Jays are not yet ready to contend, he will be an injection of defensive studliness that will keep bums in seats and TVs tuned to Rogers Sportsnet.  An injection sorely needed after the departure of John McDonald.

Photos courtesy of CBC Sports, Getty Images and the Associated Press.  Statistics from Baseball Reference.

Written By

has written for Mopupduty.com since 2006. Follow Callum on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram

  • gabriel

    Firstly, it’s a foregone conclusion that the Jays offer Johnson arbitration; there’s no way they walk away from potentially two compensation picks. If he does accept arbitration, I think the Jays are likely to emerge happy, as he’s averaged 3 fWAR/year.

    By the way, you say that you wouldn’t want to pay $6m for Johnson’s 2010 production. You meant 2011, because he put up 4.2 bWAR and 5.9 fWAR in 2010.

    Johnson is also a guy whose fielding scouts apparently tend to get wrong: he’s been around average by most advanced metrics over his career; the exceptions being TZL and whatever B-R uses, which see him as above-average.

  • Dexxter

    Don’t really see where you’re going with this.

    For the potential to land 2 draft picks the Jays have to take the “risk” of the top FA 2B accepting arbitration for what “could be” a bit of an overpayment?

    With a need at 2B and (potentially) a very small payroll this year, the Jays can easily afford this “risk”. Especially with Johnson’s potential to get his bat going again.

    • I think you see exactly where I am going with this.

      In my eyes, the potential to land 2 draft picks is so low that it doesn’t justify the “risk” of Johnson accepting arbitration.

      Johnson may be the top free-agent second-baseman, but that doesn’t speak to his value as a player. He is in the bottom-tier of all second-basemen in all of baseball. If Kelly Johnson accepts arbitration, he ties up approximately one tenth of the entire team’s payroll. The only player who earns more than him is Jose Bautista. As you said, with a need at 2B and a very small payroll this year….that’s not how I’d like to allocate the resources of my budget.

      Going back to the need at 2B. Alex Anthopoulos has stated that he prefers making his major moves through trades.

      “Most times in free agency you’re probably going to find that you’re not going to see a lot of value in it. There is the odd time that you will, but you’re going to have to feel that it’s there, especially for the prime, premium guys.”

      Johnson is not a prime, premium guy. Not enough to afford this “risk.” Hudson was just a name I threw out there, however, the Jays could just as easily go and get another one of their buy low/high upside darlings such as Gordon Beckham, who has youth on his side. That said, to get him would force the Jays to deal much more much more valuable assets than what it would cost for a Hudson.

      If you want to pay Kelly Johnson for what he did in 2010, you might as well pay Aaron Hill for what he did in 2009.