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“Fra-gee-lei” . . . that must be Italian!

Posted By Cliff Corcoran On December 18, 2009 @ 2:50 am In Cliff Corcoran | Comments Disabled

2003 Topps Nick Johnson (Topps All-Star Rookie) [Note: this was Johnson's only regular issue Topps card as a Yankee, his 2004 card showed him in an Expos uniform.] [1]Mere days after Hideki Matsui agreed to join the Angels on a one-year contract worth $6 million, the Yankees have come to terms with Nick Johnson on a one-year deal worth a reported $5.75 million plus incentives to replace Matsui as their designated hitter. The decision to sign Johnson, so it seems to me, was less one the Yankees had made entering the offseason and more one that was made as a result of other decisions made by and about departing free agents Matsui and Johnny Damon.

Though many believe Matsui signed with the Angels because Halos manager Mike Scioscia promised him the opportunity to play left field once or twice a week (though, actually, Scioscia only promised him an opportunity in Spring Training to prove he could still play the field, which he likely can’t), and The Daily NewsMark Fiensand [2] reported late last night that the Yankees opted not to resign Matsui primarily because of the state of his knees, I have another theory.

Based on a piece by Matsui’s agent Arn Tellem [3] that appeared on the Huffington Post on Wednesday, I believe Matsui took the Angels’ offer without giving the Yankees a chance to match or beat it because he was afraid the Yankees, who had been focusing on negotiating with Johnny Damon, might either not make an offer (true if you believe Fiensand’s unnamed source), or might take enough time doing so that the Angels would rescind their offer. Here are the key passages from Tellem:

Hideki’s overriding concerns have always been winning and playing for a quality organization. Over his 17 seasons in pro ball, his only two teams have been the Yankees and the Yomiuri Giants. Each is the premier franchise in its respective league. Beyond the Yanks, his preferences were the Angels and the Boston Red Sox, two dominating franchises with superb players, coaches and management. But with David Ortiz entrenched as Boston’s everyday designated hitter, the Red Sox were never a real option.

[snip]

Hideki chose to accept Angel’s offer rather than wait for Yankees to decide whether they wanted to bring him back. Failure to act quickly might have caused L.A. to withdraw its offer and forced Hideki to sign with a weaker team, thus forfeiting a shot at another World Series. Conflicted, Hideki stayed up all Sunday night mulling his final move in this limited game of musical free-agent chairs. He didn’t want to be left standing.

Now, I realize that almost everything an agent says in public is spin, but I see no reason for Tellem to basically admit to being the first to blink in a game of contract chicken other than having actually done so.

The catch here is that, while the Yankees might have preferred to bring back Johnny Damon as their designated hitter (he’s clearly no longer qualified [4] to play the field, either), Damon has been firm in his desire for a contract that comfortably exceeds Bobby Abreu’s two-year, $19 million re-up with the Angels in both years and annual salary. The Yankees have wisely balked at Damon’s demands, which suddenly left them searching for option C.

Enter Nick Johnson, the once and future Yankee. As an underpowered on-base machine, Johnson is a good fit as a replacement for Damon in the number-two hole in the Yankee lineup, and as an oft-injured, defensively challenged first baseman who hit just eight homers last year in 574 plate appearances, he was willing to take a one-year deal with a base salary even lower than Matsui’s.

That’s all well and good, but there are a lot of reasons to be underwhelmed if not outright dissatisfied with the Johnson signing. First and foremost among them is his fragility. Yes, Johnson’s on-base percentage of .426 was surpassed only by MVPs Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols among qualifying batters in 2009, but it’s getting into the batters’ box in the first place that has been the challenge for Johnson. The 133 games he played in this past season were the second most of his major league career and he played just 38 games over the previous two seasons combined.

Here’s a quick look at Johnson’s injury history:

  • 1998: separated shoulder (out six weeks)
  • 2000: unknown left hand/wrist injury (missed entire season)
  • 2002: bone bruse in left wrist (missed three weeks)
  • 2003: fractured right hand (missed two months)
  • 2004: back (missed first two months); broken cheekbone (missed last six weeks)
  • 2005: bone bruse in right heel (missed a month)
  • 2006-7: broken right femur (suffered late September ’06, it wiped out his entire ’07 season)
  • 2008: torn ligaments and tendons in wrist (ended season in mid-May)
  • 2009: strained right hamstring (missed two weeks)

Johnson has had his share of fluke injuries, chief among them the foul ball that bounced back up and broke his cheekbone in 2004 and the broken leg he suffered in a collision with right fielder Austin Kearns in 2006, but the frequency and severity of his injuries is no fluke. Johnson is truly fragile and when he breaks he takes longer to heal than most players (to cite two recent examples, he was expected to return from his soft-tissue injury in 2008, but didn’t, and that broken leg, which kept him out of action for more than a calendar year, also took far longer to heal properly than was anticipated).

So, yes, Johnson’s on-base skills (.402 career OBP) would look mighty fine in the two hole, helping to set the table for Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, but there’s a good chance the Yankees will need someone else to fill that spot for a significant portion of the coming season, and if that person is Curtis Granderson (who would otherwise likely hit fifth behind Rodriguez), they’ll need someone else to take Granderson’s spot lower in the order.

The other concern about Johnson is that he slugged just .405 last year and hit just 13 home runs in 721 plate appearances over the last two seasons. Certainly being a lefty hitter in the New Yankee Stadium will help him get some Johnny Damon-style cheapies [5], but one wonders if his history of hand and wrist injuries, most crucially that soft-tissue injury in 2008 which took forever to heal, might have sapped his power for good. Johnson was never a big-time home-run threat, but in 2006, his best major league season, he slugged .520 with 23 homers and 46 doubles, numbers the Nick Johnson we saw in 2009 looked incapable of ever matching (and bear in mind that both of his home stadiums in 2009 rated as above average for lefty power hitters per the 2010 Bill James Handbook).

It’s being widely reported that the Johnson signing will end the Yankees’ pursuit of Damon, as well it should given Damon’s defensive limitations and the fact that, with Mark Teixeira in place, Johnson’s only position is DH. That doesn’t mean that the Yankees are set for 2010. One rumor that intrigues me concerns their interest in the similarly injury-prone Ben Sheets. Right now the Yankees’ rotation consists of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, Joba Chamberlain (finally untethered by innings limits), and Phil Hughes (who will have an innings limit), with Chad Gaudin, who made some great strides with his slider after working with Dave Eiland late last year, lingering as a sixth starter/Hughes caddy. Looking at that and factoring in utility pitcher Alfredo Aceves and prospect Zach McAllister, who will start 2009 in Triple-A, I don’t feel that the Yankees need another starter. However, given the potential for injury in the rotation as assembled–particularly to the two kids, Pettitte, who will be 38 in June, and Burnett, who has yet to fully shake his own injury history despite finally turning in consecutive healthy seasons–I wouldn’t mind the Yankees taking a Johnson-like gamble on Sheets, who has tremendous upside and, after sitting out all of 2009 following elbow trouble, has very little leverage for a long-term or even a particularly pricey short-term deal.

The big fish still out there in the pond, however, is Matt Holliday. I’ve been regrettably absent from the Banter since the end of the World Series, but those who have been following my frequent twitter [6] updates know that my proposed plan [7] for the Yankees this offseason started with Holliday, who is as perfect a fit for the Yankees’ left-field hole as Mark Teixeira was for their first-base hole a year ago. The acquisition of Curtis Granderson has allayed the need for Holliday, but unless the Yankees plan to play Granderson in left and let Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner continue to battle it out for the center field job, the Yankees’ left field hole persists.

I had given up hope of the Yankees signing Holliday Tuesday morning when Joe Strauss [8] of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the Cardinals had offered him an eight-year deal, but that afternoon, Buster Olney [9] reported that the Cardinals were holding fast at five years. Holliday is a lesser player than Teixeira and there are still doubts about his ability to produce in the American League, but he is an excellent all-around player (hits for average with power and patience, good in the field, decent speed on the bases) and won’t turn 30 until next month, and the new Yankee Stadium was every bit as friendly to righty power hitters in its first season as it was to lefties. He’s well worth a five-year deal even if the annual salary creeps toward $20 million. Unlike with Teixeira, there seems to be little to no threat of the Red Sox moving in on Holliday should the Yankees fail to, but there is no superior outfielder scheduled to hit the market next offseason (Carl Crawford comes closest, but Holliday still has him beat and relies far less on his speed, a skill likely to fade as Crawford gets into his thirties).

The Yankees have said they don’t plan to pursue Holliday, but they said the same thing about Teixeira last year. Landing Holliday would make any contribution from Johnson a bonus. Failing to do so would make Johnson an important bat in the Yankee lineup, which is asking for trouble because there’s no guarantee he won’t break [10]. I’d rather have rolled the dice on Matsui’s knees for one more year.


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URLs in this post:

[1] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Johnson-Nick-2003.jpg

[2] Mark Fiensand: http://twitter.com/BloggingBombers/statuses/6787790428

[3] Arn Tellem: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arn-tellem/godzilla-rocks-southern-c_b_394273.html

[4] no longer qualified: http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=of&stats=fld&lg=all&qual=y&type=0&season=2009&month=0

[5] Johnny Damon-style cheapies: http://mlb.mlb.com/stats/individual_player_hitting_chart.jsp?c_id=mlb&playerID=113028&statType=1

[6] twitter: http://twitter.com/CliffCorcoran

[7] my proposed plan: http://twitter.com/CliffCorcoran/status/6288306261

[8] Joe Strauss: http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/sports/stories.nsf/cardinals/story/8BDAA64CC99AD8D98625768D00172D31?OpenDocument

[9] Buster Olney: http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=4745530

[10] break: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVOOjV_E3s4&feature=related

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