When the Rays signed Jeff Keppinger, almost everyone’s reaction was confusion. Where would he play? He was a hitter who made a lot of contact but did little else and why did the Rays need him? They had Evan Longoria manning third base, Ben Zobrist at second, and Carlos Pena and first, and while shortstop appeared to be a weakness with Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac, and Elliot Johnson fighting for time, that was the one position on the infield that Keppinger couldn’t play. It seemed like the Rays were going burning 1,525,000 critical dollars on a utility infielder they didn’t need. The way it worked out, though, Longoria went down, Pena slumped, and Keppinger turned into one of the best signings the Rays have ever made, delivering a breakout season. A year and one day after the Rays signed Keppinger, they have made a signing in a similar vein, agreeing to terms with free agent infielder Kelly Johnson according to Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports.
The comparison between the Keppinger and Kelly Johnson signing is easy to make: both are primary second basemen on the wrong side of thirty coming off down years who signed one-year with the Rays a year and a day apart. But after that, the parallels between Keppinger and Johnson end. Keppinger has always been a scrappy, contact-oriented role player who suddenly broke out in 2012. Johnson, meanwhile, has shown the ability to be much more but has also been way more inconsistent. For his career, Johnosn has a .255/.338/.429 line (103 OPS+) with an average of 26 doubles, 15 homers, and 10 stolen bases per season. When Johnson has been at his best, he has hit for a solid average, managing marks above .280 twice in his seven-year career, and delivered impressive power, especially from the second base position, delivering 26 home runs in 2010 and 21 in 2011. Johnson has also shown solid speed, swiping double-digit bases four times including 13 or more each of the last three seasons. But the major issue that has bogged Johnson down is, in sharp contrast to Keppinger, strikeouts. After striking out in 18.9% of his plate appearances from 2005 to 2009 and walking 10.7% of the time, both fine ratios, Johnson’s strikeout rate jumped to 25.2% the last three years while his walk rate stayed steady at 10.8%. After averaging 90 strikeouts a year from 2005 to 2009, Johnson has jumped to 157 per season the last three years. Initially, the trade-off worked fine as Johnson delivered a huge 2010, managing a .284/.370/.496 line (127 OPS+) with 36 doubles, 5 triples, 26 homers, 71 RBI, 13 of 20 stolen bases, and a 148-79 strikeout to walk ratio in 154 games and 671 plate appearances for the Arizona Diamondbacks. But Johnson’s strikeout rate has only continued to climb since then and he has fallen down to only a .223/.308/.390 line (88 OPS+) in 1194 plate appearances with the D-Backs and Blue Jays the last two years.
Unlike Keppinger, who has bounced all over the field his entire career, Johnson has been almost exclusively a second baseman after arriving in the major leagues as a left fielder in 2005. The defensive metrics don’t like him very much, with Ultimate Zone Rating giving him a -1.9 UZR/150 in 6682 defensive innings and FRAA giving him a -1.3 FRAA/150, but essentially he’s an average defender. Also, while Keppinger bats right-handed and the Rays were in the market for right-handed hitting this offseason, Johnson bats lefty, although he has actually been better against lefties than righties for his career, managing a .778 OPS compared to .763. However, Johnson has slipped to just a .213/.278/.340 line against lefties the last two years, becoming more vulnerable against them as he has swung more towards the fences. But Johnson has still been capable against righties even as he has slumped the last two years, putting up a .227/.320/.409 line with 28 home runs in 761 plate appearances, and his career numbers provide hope that he’ll be able to rebound against both lefties and righties.
Rosenthal tweeted something interesting after reporting the Johnson signing, that Johnson is expected to bounce around the field, something he hasn’t really done his entire career, while Ben Zobrist is going to play primarily second base (although he’ll also move around quite a bit). The main purpose for that is defense- Zobrist has a tremendous 11.0 career UZR/150 at second base and certainly passes the eye test at the position, and the Rays will use him to shore up their infield defense. But what does that mean for Johnson and quite a few other Rays players? In all likelihood, Johnson will be a pretty regular player (like we saw with Keppinger), seeing time in left field, at second base when Zobrist plays other positions, and maybe at third base backing up Evan Longoria. That is going to affect a whole lot of other players: Ryan Roberts, Elliot Johnson, Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac, Brandon Guyer, and Sam Fuld. Roberts goes from starting full-time at second base against lefty pitching to starting much less and playing third base and first base in a backup role, Fuld settles in as a backup outfielder and not a platoon outfielder, Guyer will probably start 2013 in the minor leagues, and at least one of Johnson, Rodriguez, and Brignac will be out of luck. The Rays’ 40-man roster currently stands at a full 40 and that’s without the signings of Kyle Farnsworth, Luke Scott, and Johnson. You have to feel bad for the players that are heading off the Rays’ roster, but essentially what the Rays are doing is getting better hitters like Johnson and Roberts to fill their backup roles, something that will strengthen them significantly as a ballclub.
The Rays’ signing of Kelly Johnson is interesting in that they don’t have a position easily open to him and he’s a lefty batter as opposed to the right-handed hitter they were looking for. But while he has struggled the last couple of years, he gives the Rays much-improved depth in the infield and left field and the ability to get much more offensive production off their bench their ever before. While Johnson certainly carries risk and the chances of him following Keppinger with a breakout season of his own in 2013 may be pretty low, he should be an impact player for the Rays next season and a solid contributor for them as they look for a fourth straight 90-win season and more importantly, a return to the postseason and beyond.