The Elliot Johnson Alternative

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 12: Carl Crawford #13 of the Boston Red Sox is tagged by Elliot Johnson #9 of the Tampa Bay Rays on April 12, 2011 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Another game, another strong showing from Elliot Johnson. Last night, E-Lo, as I secretly call him, went 2 for 3 with a trips-bagga and a sac fly. He is now hitting a cuh-razy 38% above league average (a 138 wRC+) with 2 homers and 3 steals and (thus far) plus defense (per his 2.1 UZR).

Look, I love E-Lo, be he won't be 138 wRC+ for the rest of the season, and I think most other analysts would agree with me. He's presently sporting a .361 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and only has 62 plate appearances. So, we know he will normalize -- slow down a little with his bat -- but with Reid Brignac caught in a super-slump, Johnson may only need to perform adequately to be worth some extra looks at shortstop. It appears Joe Maddon has also liked Johnson's play and planned to ease Briggy's time back:

"Reid's a young man, and he's going to be an everyday shortstop, and he's probably going to be that in the very near future," Maddon said. "But for right now, what's best for us is that I think we back off him a little bit, give Elliot a little more playing time and see how that all works out."

Long term, Brignac aught to be the better option, but it is starting to look more and more like he will be sliding into the Jason-Bartlett-at-best contingency plan. Do not get me wrong, Bartlett is/was a quality shortstop, combining slick defense with rather significant platoon and ground/fly ball splits. If we can get decent major league quality play from Brignac, then we will be in good shape.

Unfortunately, the Rays have not gotten either great defense or acceptable hitting from Brignac. He showed good defense in 2010, but his 2011 season with the Rays has not gone so swimmingly. Per UZR, he's been just league average so far (0.0 runs saved above average), but in general, I think it is fair to assume that will change (and he will be above average). More concerning is the trend with his hitting:

Year League PAs  HR  wRC+
2006 A+     455  21  141
2006 AA     121   3  145
2007 AA     596  17  107
2008 AAA    386   9   88
2009 AAA    453   8  102
2010 MLB    326   8   86

Briggy went from Oh my! to Oh my. As the competition got stiffer, Reid Brignac the Slugger gave way to Reid Brignac the hopefully league average. Consider, though, that league average with a bat is still above average at the shortstop position. So, if he plays awesome defense, an average bat would make Brigz a good shortstop option.

The deal is this year, though. And Brignac is under-performing while the Rays are in the heat of another run for the division. With the Red Sox catching fire recently and the Yankees playing good ball too, the Rays may need to squeeze all they can out of each position.

With that in mind, the Rays certainly should consider scaling back Reid's playing time. Elliot Johnson raked last year in Triple-A, let no soothsayer tell you otherwise! He sported a 138 wRC+ and pilfered a pleasant 30 bases. Some will rightly observe his high BABIP (.383) and relative old age to the league and repeat appearances, but the BABIP simply means he's no Pujols and the age does not matter: Triple-A is not like some role playing game where when you beat it once, you can beat it next time handedly.

Johnson, moreover, has hit above league average in each of his last five minor league season, except his first showing in Triple-A (when he hit a little worse than a shortstop). Elliot's age does not matter because when we look at a player's age, we are not adjusting his present statistics like we do with BABIP, we are adjusting his predicted future stats. In the future, E-Lo will probably be a utility man, but in the present, he may well be a capable part-time shortstop. This will allow Briggy to focus on his relative strengths, find his groove, and then re-assume his starting role. If that never happens, then we will at least have a better look at Elliot Johnson.

And who knows? Maybe something amazing happens in between?

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