Friday, June 6, 2014

How Much of a Mistake was Chris Johnson's Extension?

When Chris Johnson inked a three year contract worth $23.5M with a fourth year option that could increase the deal to nearly $35M, it prompted a lot of questions. Was Johnson worth that money, especially coming off a career year that saw him slash .321/.358/.457? Was Johnson worth the commitment given that the Braves don't have a ready-replacement? Will giving extra cash now save money later and/or provide the team with a better idea of future payroll commitments with the Braves heading to Cobb County in the near future?

To me, the biggest question was "why?"  As in, why give Johnson an extension? Why commit to Johnson at this point in the game?

Johnson was acquired last offseason along with Justin Upton in the trade that sent Martin Prado and prospects to the Diamondbacks. The Braves were unwilling to commit to Prado at third base in the post-Chipper Jones era. Prado appeared to give the Braves a replacement for Jones and would likely move from left field to the hot corner. However, the Diamondbacks wanted Prado for his "grit" and "will to win" and Atlanta desired Upton's bat and ability to cash in Prado before he left via free agency. Bringing back Johnson made the deal easier for Arizona, who would have no place for the third basemen after acquiring Prado. Atlanta, meanwhile, needed options and trading Prado left them with Juan Francisco and not a whole lot else.

Supposedly the right-handed portion of a platoon with Francisco, Johnson hit from the start in 2013 and after attempting to showcase Fat Juan, the Braves merely found a taker willing to deal with Francisco and handed the job to Johnson. The result was a tremendous season where Johnson set career highs in many categories.

A Super 2 player, Johnson agreed to a $4.75M contract in his second year of arbitration and still had two more seasons of arbitration to go with. In that way, signing Johnson to a three year deal plus a fourth year option bought out two potentially expensive seasons of arbitration while bringing known totals to those years. On the other hand, would Johnson had made more than the $13.5M he will get the next two seasons? Possibly, though his play would have to earn it.

Beyond the financials of the deal, the Braves went all-in with Johnson, a guy whose defensive limitations they considered such an issue that of his 123 games started at third base in 2013, the Braves brought in someone else to replace him at third base 39% of the time. This season, that total is down to 13%, a reasonable total, and UZR much prefers him this season vs. last year (0.5 vs. -5.2), though even a league average season would be a major difference from his career. His -5.2 last year was the best of his career.

His BABIP has often been discussed into lengths. I've done it and many others have also done it. Last year's .394 BABIP was the second highest total in baseball between 2009 and 2013. Yet, with the greatest luck in the world, he could only OPS .816. Now, it's not fair to call it just luck. After all, Johnson has the third greatest BABIP since arriving in the majors. But even if his BABIP reaches historic levels, the production is often muted by a complete lack of discipline (4.6 BB%), underwhelming power numbers (.142 ISO), relatively average offensive production (104 wRC+).

According to fangraphs WAR, when converted into dollars, Johnson has been worth, including this season, about $17M as a major league baseball player. Now, there are inherent problems to this formula, but it's upsetting to guarantee so much money to a guy who hasn't played up to it. However, the Braves were banking on continued success from last year's 2.8 fWAR. When converted to dollars, that is fitting of a $13.8M salary in free agency. At that rate, Johnson becomes a bargain, even with his defensive flaws and offensive limitations.

However, if Johnson is a one-hit wonder, how much will the Braves go to regret this deal? By the numbers, if every win above replacement is worth between $4 and $5M, Johnson pays for himself provided he finishes with a 1.5 WAR or better season. The problem is that he's only done that once (last season) and if he doesn't hit, he doesn't produce. Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons could post strong WAR's and hit for crap, or at least like Johnson is currently hitting, because of their elite defense. If Johnson doesn't hit, it shows.

The good news for Johnson is that his previous history and age (29) suggest this season will improve closer to the mean. His BABIP is 20 points under his career, his BB% is down 3 points, his ISO is nearly half of what his career number would be, and as a result, all of his numbers have fell. There is a good shot that will rectify itself. How much? Check in again in October.

But to the original question...how much of a mistake was the extension? Maybe not a lot, but if it is a mistake, it's needless one to make. Why not go year-to-year in arbitration? The common argument would stand that the Braves saved money in arbitration with a longer term deal, but of those two more years of arbitration, the Braves committed $13.5M. That likely would have been close to what the Braves would have paid anyway. Why guarantee a third season? Why? It's a confusing decision. It's like the Braves got extension-happy and wanted to keep everyone together. Yes, the Braves don't have a lot of depth at third, though Kyle Kubitza has a .834 OPS at Mississippi while playing plus defense. And yes, there weren't a lot of exciting alternatives on the free agent market, though isn't that irrelevant considering Johnson was team-controlled through the 2016 season?  Why make this deal?

If Johnson's numbers normalize, he should be about a 5 WAR guy throughout the life of his contract, not including his option year. That makes the extension sensible on the face of it. But the need to make this contract happen...that's still missing. The flaws and limitations of Johnson's game. They exist and are likely to continue.

Frank Wren has made a lot of great, bold decisions. This extension to a player you probably would be better off going year-to-year with? Bold, yeah. But that's about it.

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