The past few years, so much of what the Rays have touched on the free agent market has turned into gold. From relievers like Fernando Rodney and Joaquin Benoit to position players like James Loney and Jeff Keppinger, each year the Rays gain a little more renown as that baseball team that finds another team’s undesireables and turns them into cornerstones of their success. Not every signing has worked out so well–Pat Burrell and the re-up with Carlos Pena immediately come to mind–but the Rays have done an incredible job finding undervalued players season after season. Kelly Johnson was certainly a signing in that vain as well. Coming off a disastrous season with the Toronto Blue Jays but just two years removed from a 21-homer, 16-steal season, the Rays signed Johnson for just $2 million and shocked everyone when it became apparent that they would Johnson, who had been a second baseman the previous six years, as a super-utility type playing all over the field. For a while, it looked like signing Johnson would be another stroke of genius as Johnson hit to a .299/.360/.571 line in his first 44 games and 164 plate appearances including 10 home runs, even batting third in the Rays’ lineup for a time. But since then, Johnson has not only failed to live up to that standard of play but been reduced to a part-time player. Was it all Johnson’s fault or have the Rays mishandled him?
Among the Rays’ first 72 games, Johnson appeared in 61 of them, starting 57. Overall, he hit to a .248/.321/.457 (116 OPS+) line with 11 home runs in 237 plate appearances. Since then, the Rays have played 76 games. Johnson has appeared in just 50 of them, starting only 35, and hit to just a .232/.293/.370 line (85 OPS+) with 5 home runs in 150 plate appearances. Johnson has had some great games and some clutch hits, but he simply can’t find his way back into the Rays’ lineup on a regular basis anymore. Why the sudden shift? Johnson was slumping, but Joe Maddon usually lets his players play through tough stretches. The reason is that over the course of that stretch, James Loney proved himself a capable option against left-handed pitching, Luke Scott came off the disabled list, and David DeJesus and Delmon Young were acquired. And of course, just three days before that stretch began, some kid named Wil Myers was called up to the major leagues. Other players stepped up to fulfill Johnson’s role while he was struggling and he got lost in the shuffle.
But did Johnson get a fair chance?
This season, Kelly Johnson has appeared primarily in left field, appearing 52 times there compared to 35 times at second base, third base, and first base combined. The Rays decided that Ben Zobrist would be their primary second baseman and obviously Evan Longoria and James Loney were at the infield corners, so left field was going to be the place where Johnson had an opportunity to start the most. But while the Rays had an interesting idea moving him to left field, the results have not exactly been pretty. Small sample size caveats apply, but Johnson has managed just a -3.7 UZR and a -14.5 UZR/150. His three errors are tied for fourth in the American League, with every other player in the top five appearing in at least 20 more games than him and three of the four appearing in at least 35 more. And just watching him, it has become apparent that Johnson simply is not a good defensive left fielder. With his bat slumping and his defense costing the team over time, the Rays had no choice but to Johnson out of the lineup.
This offseason, Kelly Johnson will be a free agent and sign with a team that probable is not the Rays. He has a real chance to thrive. Left field has not gone too well for Johnson, but rebranding himself as a more versatile player certainly has. He looked great filling in for Evan Longoria at third base and can still play his natural second base decently. Left field and first base did not go as well, but it’s certainly something in his favor that he can play both positions. With a real opportunity to be a starting second baseman, a starting third baseman, or a super-utility player seeing time at every position he can play, Johnson does a lot of things to help a team win. This season, Johnson’s OPS against lefties has been .726, nearly identical to his .734 mark against righties, and the only reason he didn’t play more against lefties was because of the Rays’ right-handed hitters like Myers, Sean Rodriguez, and most recently, Young. He hits for quite of power, steals a few bases, and this season has showed how much of a team player he is. Not only has he been willing to change positions as needed, but he has battled through a difficult playing time situation without saying a single negative word to the media. The Rays really like Kelly Johnson, but their desire to win, his defensive deficiency at the position they needed him to play, and his slump at the plate made it too much for them to get him regular playing time. Those qualities are enough for him to get plenty of offers following the season, with more regular playing time next season a real possibility. Saying that the Rays sabotaged Johnson’s season is a little extreme. At the very least, though, they left Johnson as a diamond in the rough for another team to find.