This was written for a different publication, but since I haven't experienced any DRB hate comments in weeks now, I figured I'd post this here too. I realize that 99.9% of you already know this stuff, so then this isn't for you... Unless you have hateful comments. Enjoy!
The setting: Opening Day 2011, Tropicana Field. For one player, it was indeed the best of times. Dan Johnson had left spring training as the starting first baseman for the Tampa Bay Rays. For another guy, things weren't as defined. Yet it would be a stretch of any imagination to call it the "worst of times" for one Elliot Johnson. Johnson, who'd only gotten a September call up in 2008, was happy to at least be breaking camp on the 25-man roster. But with Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez platooning at shortstop, his chances of getting substantial playing time were dismal. Dan Johnson would rock a double in his very first at-bat of the fresh season, while Elliot would have to sit back and be patient, waiting for his opportunities, if and when they came.
Flash forward. Here we are, less than two months into the 2011 campaign and we've seen the rise of Elliot and the fall of Dan; one moved up to a starter and the other, jettisoned back to Durham.
In a bit of Dickensian foreshadowing, certain events may have given incite to these specific trajectories before either man ever took the field in 2011.Dan Johnson, known best for his late inning heroics against Boston in 2008 and 2010, was handed the starting role at first base with the departure of Carlos Pena. Many fans and critics looked no further than Dan Johnson when excluding the Rays from playoff contention in 2011. But thanks to a guileful maneuver by Andrew Friedman, we didn't have to settle for an entire season of the DanJo Experience. In a shrewd move, an unheralded one at the time, the Rays' GM signed veteran 1B Casey Kotchman to a minor league deal over the winter. Naturally, Kotchman blistered the Grapefruit League during spring training to the tune of a .354/.415/.521 triple-slash. However, the team stuck to their plan and went with Dan Johnson to start the season. And Dan did get that double in his first AB. But unfortunately for Dan, and the team, he was only able to swat one additional extra base hit over his next 77 at-bats. Granted, that other XBH was a big home run that helped the Rays get off their season-opening six-game skid, Dan's flare for the dramatic wouldn't be enough to justify his roster spot, and thus he was designated for assignment on May 20th. In his stead, Kotchman brings a much slicker glove and a bat that has been crazy hot. Casey has parlayed his formidable Spring output into a regular season line of .349/.415/.443 with a more-than-healthy .379 wOBA aka a 145 wRC+. While his numbers will be difficult to maintain going forward, Joe Maddon and the Rays have made a firm decision to ride the hot hand. Or at least be wise enough to sit their cold players.
In the "Cold Rays Hitters" department, perhaps none have been buried in the frigid depths of a slumping bat more than Reid Brignac this season. In fact, a quick glance over at fangraphs.com, and we see that of the 32 Major League shortstops to log at least 100 plate appearances in 2011, Reid is the worst of the lot according to WAR. In fact, by this metric, Reid's performance has cost the team nearly an entire win so far this season. He's done this by virtue of his poor bat (5 wRC+) as well as through negative contributions in the field and on the basepaths. Reid's oft discussed approach and his lack of production have forced Maddon to explore other options.
Enter Elliot Johnson. The man may not be a cure-all for the Rays offensive woes, but when you're marching out the worst shortstop in baseball, nearly any positive-net contribution from the position is welcomed. Unlike Brignac, Johnson was never aBaseball America top-100 prospect. Instead, Johnson, who is now 26 years old, has been a minor-league grinder. He's played parts of ten professional seasons within the Rays (nee Devil Rays) organization, with stops at virtually every level and farm outpost since signing out of high school back in 2002. At one point, Johnson was further along in the Rays' farm system but thanks to a disastrous 2007 season at Durham, Brignac was able to leapfrog him for "Shortstop of the Future" billing. The two split time at Triple-A Durham during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, waiting to take over for Jason Bartlett. Interestingly enough, and for the purposes of this piece, their numbers while playing together for those two seasons provided a curious bit of "foreshadowing" as to their current situations.
All stats are courtesy of fangraphs.com.
What the numbers tell us, is that the two players are very similar. Both have similar plate discipline, or rather poor plate discipline. Speed is comparable, but edge Johnson. Johnson also has the edge in power over the two seasons. Both got called up in late 2008, neither was able to impress. However, due to his pedigree as a top prospect and scouts considering him a smooth fielder, Brignac was given another brief opportunity in 2009. During this time, Reid used a high BABIP (.349) to impress Rays' brass in route to a .278/.301/.444 in 90 ABs, solidifying him sizable playing time in 2010. With Bartlett still around, Brignac was deployed at second base more often than short in 2010 and his bat pushed out average, if not solid numbers for a middle infielder, especially for a rookie. His fielding potential as a big leaguer may have been a tad overstated, but based on the fact that he's only logged around 850 innings at short, his -0.3 UZR (-0.1 USR/150), doesn't give me the feeling that he's a bust with the glove.
Meanwhile, Elliot Johnson's 2010 saw him post his best showing for the Triple-A Bulls. Becoming a bit more selective at the plate, Johnson sacrificed some power but posted higher numbers nearly across the board, producing a .319/.375/.475 line. Of course, if Triple-A numbers were an exact predictor of MLB performance, we'd have expected a MVP-caliber season from DanJo. Regardless, with Brignac's slide into the depths of a slump, Elliot's emergence has been a shot in the arm to an offense that has appeared punchless at times this season. In Elliot's 14 starts at short this season he's mustered a respectable .260 BA, while slugging .478, including a three-game barrage from May 15-18, where he went 5-for-10 with a pair of homers and a triple to go along with his three runs scored and five driven in.
The Rays have been an amazingly streaky team with the stick this season, but Maddon and crew have weathered storm after storm, riding the hottest hand available to them. Where one door has closed, another man with a glove is shuttled into an opening door. Dan Johnson may never become the hitter that has been so alluring in his late-game heroics, but the savvy Rays' management had already took a preemptive strike against the possibility of his shortcomings. And in a farm system deep with shortstops (See: Hak-Ju Lee, Tim Beckham, Derek Dietrich) keeping a 26-year old career minor leaguer around may have seemed foolhardy, but again Andrew Friedman and Co. have made their bread and butter on building ungodly depth of talent at premium positions. While regression seems inevitable from Kotchman, there's no reason to think that the Rays won't have another hot bat to take up the slack if and when the time comes. A Tale of Two Johnsons is simply another feather in Friedman's cap.