MLB Free Agency: Why Has There Been No Interest in Kelly Johnson?

Free Agency NewsWhen it came to older infielders this off-season, both the free-agent market and team’s interest were flush. In fact, all of Marco Scutaro, Jeff Keppinger, and Maicer Izturis received surprising three-year, multi-million dollar contracts. There’s nothing wrong with any of those players, per-say, but how about if there was a younger, superior player available instead? How about if this player was still available? This player, of course, is Kelly Johnson.

The 30 year-old Johnson had a mixed bag season for the Blue Jays in 2012, posting a .225/.313/.365 line. Yet, despite the career-worst SLG, Johnson still lifted 16 homeruns, and recorded 55 RBI, 61 R, and 14 SB to boot. Even with the ugly line, middle-infielders with double-digit homerun and stolen base totals don’t exactly grow on trees.

Perhaps the reason there’s been little interest in KJ is that he’s a difficult player to project. Despite enjoying a 4.1 WAR in 2010, Johnson was only worth 1.5 WAR in 2011, and 1.4 WAR in 2012. Unlike Scutaro, for instance, who has consistently been worth 2.0+ WAR in each of the last three seasons, Johnson can fairly be labeled as “more of a gamble.”

Year-to-year consistency aside, there is still value in three-year averages. Over the past three seasons, Johnson still owns the better line, OPS+ (I give him the nod over Keppinger due to PA’s), and WAR.

Johnson: .245/.330/.428/.758, 102 OPS+, 7.0 WAR in 1865 PA’s
Keppinger: .296/.341/.402/.743, 107 OPS+, 2.5 WAR in 1393 PA’s
Scutaro: .293/.345/.403/.747, 99 OPS+, 6.9 WAR in 1823 PA’s
Maicer Izturis: .264/.327/.360/.687, 95 OPS+, 2.7 WAR in 1051 PA’s

In addition, not only has Johnson been better than the trio over the past three years overall, but he’s also enjoyed the best individual season in those past three years too. Johnson’s 4.1 WAR in 2010 bests Scutaro’s 2.6 WAR in 2011, Keppinger’s 2.4 WAR in 2012, and Izturis’ 1.4 WAR in 2011.

Even with “pitchers and catchers” just a month away, there is still hope for Johnson to find a job. In fact, there are at least seven teams that could instantly improve their infield depth by inking KJ.

The Marlins could look to sign Johnson to supplant slated-starter Donovan Solano, for instance. Even though the pre-arbitration Solano is a cheap option at second base, the 25 year-old was never considered a prospect (in either the Cardinals or Marlins system), and his .081 ISO and 0.7 WAR aren’t particularly exciting or productive.

Post-season heroics aside, Daniel Descalso is not a Major League starter–and especially shouldn’t be for a perennially-contending organization like the Cardinals. In fact, the 26 year-old infielder posted a horrid .227/.303/.324 line with a 72 OPS+ and -0.2 WAR last season in a part-time role. The Cards do have utility-man Ty Wiggington as insurance, but Johnson would be an upgrade over either of those players, and also makes for an ideal stop-gap until Kolten Wong is ready to take over the reigns.

The Dodgers have spent around $200 million to fill-out their 2013 roster, yet they’re still lacking at second base. Despite inking Mark Ellis to a two-year, $8.75 million contract last season, Ellis’ game has annually deteriorated since 2007 (from 4.4 WAR in 2007 to 2.4 WAR in 2012). The 35 year-old might be a better defensive option than Johnson, but it’s hard to praise a meager .106 ISO.

The Padres are letting Logan Forsythe and Alexi Amarista compete head-on for the open second base gig, but neither player provides the pop Johnson could bring to the table, and that the organization needs. Even though the 26 year-od Forsythe has solid OB skills (8.8% BB% in 2012), he owns a career .357 SLG and .103 ISO. Amarista, while younger at age 23, provides even less with the bat. The future utility-player (at best) owns a career .226/.266/.364 line with a slight 76 OPS+. For a team that had the third least amount of homeruns in baseball last season, the Padres could really use some power in their middle-infield.

Brian Roberts has reigned as the Baltimore Orioles starting second baseman since 2003, but the now 35 year-old has seen injuries get the best of him. The infielder only accumulated 513 PA’s over the past three years, and posted a meager .244/.308/340 line with a 78 OPS+. Once Roberts goes down with his inevitable injury in 2013, the Orioles only have defense-first Alexi Casilla to take over the lion’s share of starts. It would make more sense for the Orioles to add a legitimate starter like Johnson, and use the sharply-declining Roberts in a reserve role.  And heck, with Jonathan Schoop‘s arrival date coming in 2014, both Roberts and Johnson will be long gone as free-agents by then.

There isn’t a team that makes more sense for Kelly Johnson than the Oakland Athletics. The A’s currently have Scott Sizemore slotted to start at second base, and while the 28 year-old did have a promising .249/.345/.433 line in 2011, the right-handed hitter sat out all of 2012 with a knee injury. Even if Sizemore hits well in Spring Training, it’s very possible Josh Donaldson, the current starting third baseman, might not (.241/.289/.398 line and 89 OPS+ in 294 PA’s in 2012). Essentially, if you think Johnson is an upgrade over current A’s infield reserve, Adam Rosales, then the A’s would be a perfect fit for KJ. Plus, the organization always signs good low risk, high reward guys.

It’s been three years now since Gordon Beckham posted a great rookie campaign, hitting to the tune of a .270/.347/.460/.808 line. Since then, however, the 26 year-old has combined for a below-league-average .238/.303/.362/.664 line. It’s possible that if Beckham does not improve his game, the former “can’t miss” prospect will be a good non-tender candidate (as he’ll see a rise from his projected first arbitration $3.1 million salary). At the very least, a veteran like Kelly Johnson could help push Beckham–and at best, Johnson could take over for a completely bust ex-prospect.