Hot-Stove: Rays Sign INF Kelly Johnson

INF Kelly Johnson in Spring Training with the Blue Jays

INF Kelly Johnson in Spring Training with the Blue Jays

The news broke Monday that Tampa Bay signed former Blue Jays infielder Kelly Johnson to a one year contract. The terms of the contract have not been released. The 30 year-old infielder posted a .225 BA/.313 OBP/.365 SLG/.678 OPS slash-line with 16 homers in 581 plate appearances for the Blue Jays in 2012. His biggest year at the plate came in 2010 when he bashed 26 homers while driving in 71 RBI.

Fangraphs noted that,

Johnson has had trouble both making contact and driving the ball since his spectacular 2010 campaign. Perhaps that is the reason why Johnson started hitting the ball on the ground with more frequency last season, as he posted a 1.34 GB/FB, which was his highest rate since his rookie campaign in 2005. It wasn’t a strategy that worked necessarily — his 3.8% infield hit percentage (IFH%) was among the league trailers, and was the worst mark of his career. Only 19 players had a lower IFH%, and they were mainly guys you would describe as lumbering — Adrian Gonzalez, Chris Davis, Jason Kubel, Paul Konerko, Ike Davis, Adam LaRoche, Ryan Doumit, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Smoak, etc.

The question begs, how will the Rays use Johnson? This acquisition could open up more options for Joe Maddon, allowing Ben Zobrist to spend a substantial amount of time in right-field, while also allowing uber prospect Wil Myers to mature at a normal pace in Triple-A Durham. As Fangraphs put it,

It’s an interesting match, as Johnson provides the Rays with the one thing that they like — a player who has been very good in the past but who still comes at a modest cost. He also gives Tampa manager Joe Maddon the thing that he likes best — options.

It’s likely that they’ll platoon Johnson with Ryan Roberts at second base. He may also log some innings in the outfield, something Johnson hasn’t done since his debut season with the Braves in 2005.

This leaves Sean Rodriguez to battle it out with Elliot Johnson for the that coveted infield utility spot. Keep in mind that Tampa Bay is going to have to make room for Kyle Farnsworth, Luke Scott, and now Kelly Johnson on the 40-man roster. Who they remove from the roster in order to make room for the above mentioned players could serve as a clue as to how the Rays may use Kelly Johnson in 2013. There’s been some speculation that six players are on the bubble, that is at risk of removal from the 40-man roster: pitcher Dane De La Rosa, catchers Chris Gimenez, Stephen Vogt, and Robinson Chirinos, and infielders Elliot Johnson and Reid Brignac. I’d imagine that Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar will leave Reid Brignac and Elliot Johnson in the cold…not that that’s a horrible proposition.

It could be argued that Kelly Johnson may not be a member of the Rays in the second half of the season. Fangraphs put it best,

If he is, he might very well be a utility guy. If Myers comes up and wrests away a starting gig, there will be precious little playing time for him. But until then, he may be the quintessential Rays free-agent acquisition — one who has shown the ability to be above-average in the past but doesn’t come with that price tag because of recent underperformance.

Regardless, this is yet another example of the patented low risk/high reward move that the Rays have been successful with in the past.

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