RCG Mailbag: In Wake of the Kelly Johnson Signing, Which Rays Infielder is Heading Out the Door?
By Robbie Knopf
Time for another edition of our Rays Colored Glasses Mailbag answering questions from readers. You can submit a question via Facebook by commenting on any wall post or by emailing email@example.com.
Ryan P. asks via Facebook: Among Elliot Johnson, Reid Brignac, and Sean Rodriguez, who is most likely the odd man out after the Kelly Johnson signing?
As we discussed yesterday, the Rays agreeing to terms with Kelly Johnson means that not only have the Rays added a solid hitter and infield depth, but they’ve also created for themselves a major issue on their 40-man roster. According to the Rays’ official website, their 40-man roster currently stands at the full 40, and not on that roster are Kyle Farnsworth, Luke Scott, and Yunel Escobar, all of whom the Rays’ agreed to sign, meaning that the Rays are going to have to designate three players for assignment. A pretty safe bet is that the Rays are going to be parting ways with a pitcher, a catcher, and an infielder. The pitcher will probably be Dane De La Rosa or Josh Lueke. The catcher will probably be Stephen Vogt or Robinson Chirinos (Chris Gimenez finished 2012 strong and it looks like the Rays will give him a shot in spring training). The infielder that will be designated, though, is a much better question that Ryan picked up on. Here are the current infielders on the Rays’ 40-man roster.
2B/SS Tim Beckham
UTIL Reid Brignac
SS Yunel Escobar
UTIL Elliot Johnson
SS Hak-Ju Lee
1B James Loney
3B Evan Longoria
2B/3B Ryan Roberts
UTIL Sean Rodriguez
Of those nine players, Longoria, Escobar, and Loney are starting infielders, Roberts does not have a set role given the presences of Ben Zobrist (who’s listed as an outfielder) and now Kelly Johnson but should still receive a lot of plate appearances against left-handed pitching, and Lee and Beckham are in a different category entirely as top prospects. The three names that stand out on that list are the three players listed as utility players, Reid Brignac, Elliot Johnson, and Sean Rodriguez., and it seems like one of them is going to have to go. Who should it be?
Brignac, who recently turned 27, was a former top prospect for the Rays who has never panned out offensively, managing just a .227/.268/.317 line (63 OPS+) with in 716 major league plate appearances. Brignac was moderately better at Triple-A in 2012, managing a .231/.323/.353 line with 14 doubles, 8 homers, 46 RBI, and a 79-45 strikeout to walk ratio. He recovered nicely after a disastrous start in April and May after the Rays sent him down to the minor leagues, managing a .244/.331/.354 line with 9 doubles, 6 homers, 37 RBI, and a 54-31 strikeout to walk ratio in 288 plate appearances including a walk rate that was the highest of his career, but we can’t downplay the fact that he hasn’t hit at all in the major leagues. Brignac does bring with him the most upside of three as he hit 41 home runs in the minor leagues between 2006 and 2007 and still has untapped potential at the plate, and he’s also the best defender of the three, being above-average at shortstop and more than capable everywhere else on the infield, although his experience at positions other than shortstop isn’t very extensive. However, his potential have never come through at higher levels- his OPS has gone down at every level from High-A to the major leagues- and his defensive abilities mean nothing if he doesn’t hit at all. Brignac is still very cheap as a pre-arbitration player, but if he can’t hit, he doesn’t even deserve the MLB minimum salary. Brignac is a halfway-decent all-around player and he may still make a breakthrough at the plate, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll be able to do anything of enough value to stay on the Rays’ major league roster. As a player who’s out of options, Reid Brignac may have very well run out of time.
Johnson, who will turn 29 in March, was the 25th man on the Rays’ roster in 2012 as an out-of-options player, but he actually hit very well for a time when injuries gave him a chance to start as he managed a .272/.342/.394 line with 6 doubles, 4 homers, 20 RBI, 13 of 17 stolen bases, and a 47-18 strikeout to walk ratio in 65 games and 202 plate appearances. But Johnson collapsed the rest of the year, managing just a .197/.244/.282 line, and on the season he finished with a .242/.304/.350 line, an 84 OPS+, in 331 plate appearances. In 531 plate appearances with the Rays over the years, Johnson’s career line is .223/.283/.338 (75 OPS+). Johnson has proven to be a halfway-decent hitter as a switch-hitter who has his moments, and defensively he can play just about everywhere, seeing time at every infield and outfield position. The issue is that Johnson is below-average everywhere, and especially so where the Rays needed him most last year, shortstop, where he was, by all accounts statistical or observational, a disaster last year. Johnson seems to have the range and arm strength to profile just about everywhere, but erratic actions and throws make him an extremely inconsistent player and a sub-par one overall. It’s OK to be a bat-first utility man, but Johnson doesn’t hit either. Johnson does have nice speed, swiping 18 of 24 bases in 2012, but that’s really the only thing he does well. Johnson is still making near the minimum as a pre-arbitration player. Elliot Johnson does still have value because of his outstanding versatility, but is it worth to keep him basically just for that?
Rodriguez, who will turn 28 in April, was acquired by the Rays in the Scott Kazmir deal, was a productive player for the Rays in 2010 and 2011, managing a .236/.316/.376 line (94 OPS+) with 39 doubles, 17 homers, 76 RBI, 24 of 34 stolen bases, and a 184-59 strikeout to walk ratio in 249 games and 814 plate appearances between the two seasons. However, Rodriguez completely dropped off when the Rays gave him his big break to be a starting shortstop in the big leagues in 2012, managing just a .213/.281/.326 line (71 OPS+) with 14 doubles, 6 homers, 32 RBI, 5 stolen bases, and a 75-27 strikeout to walk ratio in 342 plate appearances. Rodriguez, a right-handed hitter has been much better against lefty pitching than righty pitching in his career, managing a .252/.362/.389 line compared to a .211/.266/.339 line versus righties, and that could bode well for Rodriguez because James Loney, Kelly Johnson, and Luke Scott are all lefties that Rodriguez could spell. Defensively, Rodriguez is a plus defender at second base, but that happens to be the positions that the Rays are going to ask him to play the least, and he had his share of trouble trying to handle shortstop and third base for the Rays in 2012. He does have position at every position in the infield and outfield, but the lack of fluidity and apparent effort in his throwing motion doesn’t work well for the left side of the infield and he won’t be receiving many starts on the right side of the infield as an inferior hitter to Ben Zobrist, James Loney, Kelly Johnson, and Ryan Roberts. A major issue for Rodriguez is that he was arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason and will make 1 million dollars, more than Brignac and Elliot Johnson combined. Rodriguez has a better offensive track record than Johnson and Brignac and has the advantage of being a right-handed batter, but his lack of defensive value and salary could be what gets him off the roster. One other thing in Rodriguez’s favor is that he still has a minor league option remaining, meaning that he could start next season in the minor leagues. But given his salary, that means nothing because paying him $1MM to play at Triple-A is not something the Rays are going to do.
The main reason that Brignac, Johnson, and Rodriguez have been retained by the Rays until now is their ability to play shortstop, and that matters less because Yunel Escobar is now in the fold for the Rays. Escobar did go on the DL in 2010 and 2011, but he has averaged 138 games and 591 plate appearances the last five years and there will not be that many opportunities for others to start in his place. Also, given the versatility of Ben Zobrist, the Rays don’t need to have a player on the roster just to play shortstop. The Rays knowledge that Zobrist can fill in at shortstop if Escobar gets hurt or needs a day off renders Brignac redundant given that he doesn’t hit, and Johnson’s versatility means little as well. The bottom line among who makes the Rays’ roster among these three is who is going to hit, and Rodriguez has the advantage in that regard. He may be making more than Brignac and Johnson combined, but $1MM is not that much even for the Rays and the Rays can afford to pay him that as a backup player.
Deciding between Brignac and Johnson comes down to not only their abilities but also who the Rays think will pass through waivers. Whoever the Rays choose is presumably going to be the Rays’ 25th man to begin 2013. In terms of your 25th man, what would you rather have, a pinch-runner like Johnson or a defensive wiz like Brignac? Given that Johnson went just 6 of 13 stealing bases when he didn’t get consistent playing time in 2011 while Brignac’s defense is a known quantity, I think the Rays have to choose Brignac over Johnson unless they’re sure Brignac will pass through waivers and remain in the organization. Johnson may have more extensive experience all over the field than Brignac, but Brignac is more athletic and has better defensive tools, and teaching him the positions he is not as experienced playing should not be much of a problem. Brignac has been a complete bust offensively the past couple of years, but the Rays appreciate his defense and he may have finally turned a corner at the plate this year at Triple-A. It seems counter-intuitive given that Johnson beat out Brignac for big league time in 2012, but Brignac is the player who gives the Rays more value right now and Elliot Johnson seems to be the player among the utility infielder types on the Rays’ 40-man roster who is about to get designated for assignment.