The biggest question mark heading into this season is the Yankee infield. There have been plenty of articles written about the uncertainty surrounding Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, and Brian Roberts, but there has not been much about the player most likely to be the Opening Day third baseman: Kelly Johnson.
Johnson is going to play a significant role on this year's Yankee team. Whether it's as the everyday starter at the hot corner, as a member of a platoon, or as the utility reserve backing up every infield position, it looks like we'll be seeing a lot of Johnson in 2014. While the future of the infield depends greatly on Jeter and Teixeira bouncing back from injuries, Johnson's ability to provide some solid defense in the field and some pop at the plate will go a long way towards making the Yankees contenders.
Johnson is certainly capable of delivering just what the Yankees need. Let's get one thing straight: Kelly Johnson is not bad. He's certainly no world-beater or All-Star, but Johnson has had quite a bit of success in his career, and at pitcher-friendly parks like Turner Field, too In 2007, Johnson posted a 118 wRC+, a .276/.375/.457 triple slash, and a 3.3 fWAR while playing for Atlanta, and in 2008, still with the Braves, he hit .287/.349/.446 with a 110 wRC+ and a 2.3 fWAR. In 2010 for Arizona, Johnson posted his best season as a pro, hitting .284/.370/.496 with a 129 wRC+ and a 5.4 fWAR.
However, since that season in Arizona, Johnson has admittedly struggled. In the three seasons since, he has only managed a total fWAR of 3.4, and he has not had a batting average over .235 in that same period. He strikes out far too much now (over 24% the last three seasons), he doesn't walk a lot (.37 BB/K average over the past three years), and while he's been a plus defender in his career, he has not been in recent years, according to the negative overall defensive ratings FanGraphs gave him the past two seasons.
His skills have admittedly been trending in the wrong direction over the past three years, but he did show some signs of life last year in Tampa Bay. There, he managed a 1.2 fWAR in only 118 games while posting a 101 wRC+. If he had maintained his 2013 stats over 162 games, he would have hit 22 home runs, scored 56 runs, and knocked in 71 runs. Those aren't Robinson Cano numbers, but they clearly show he's not Eduardo Nunez or Jayson Nix, either.
Defensively, Johnson isn't great, but he isn't awful either. While he's played almost his entire career at second base (-1.4 UZR/150 in over 6500 innings), he got over 100 innings in at third last year, posting a 24.4 UZR/150. It's a small sample size, but coupled with his average skills at second, it shows that, while he won't be winning a Gold Glove any time soon, he should provide the Yankees with solid defense at the hot corner.
Is a platoon even necessary?
Platooning Johnson with someone yet to be named has been thrown around, both here at Pinstripe Alley and by Yankees GM Brian Cashman. Johnson should offer a good option against left handed pitching, even though he's only posted a 73 wRC+ against them since 2011. That figure can be mostly blamed on two abysmal seasons in 2011 and 2012. In 2011, he hit .224 with a 65 wRC+ against lefties, and his 2012 was hardly an improvement, as he posted a 69 wRC+ against lefties with just a .201 batting average. However, 2013 was again a sign that Johnson was finding his form again--he hit .291 with a 95 wRC+ against left-handed pitching, which is much closer to his career wRC+ against lefties of 105.
While he looks like a pretty good bet against left-handers, it's not like his numbers against right-handed pitchers are bad. Last year he only batted .218 against them, but he did still manage a 103 wRC+, identical to his career wRC+ against right handed pitchers. Even in his woeful 2011 and 2012 seasons, he still managed to be alright against right-handers, posting wRC+'s of 102 and 90 (albeit with batting averages in .220 range). With the identity of his potential platoon partner still up in the air (not Nunez, not Nunez), the Yankees should see in Johnson a solid option to man third no matter who is on the mound. Unless another infielder makes a major impression in Spring Training (looking at you, Yangervis), Johnson should begin the season as the team's main third baseman, and not as a member of a platoon.
Importance to the 2014 Yankees infield
The focal point of this year's infield will unquestionably be Derek Jeter's retirement tour. Next will be Teixeira's wrist, but without a solid contributor at third, the question marks in the infield will become even bigger risks. Johnson should mitigate these risks. He won't be flashy and he won't singlehandedly take the Yankees to the playoffs, but he should offer both solid defense and offense at third. As a lefty, playing half his games in Yankee Stadium should only improve his offensive numbers.
With an offense that will include Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Brett Gardner, and hopefully rejuvenated versions of Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter, Kelly Johnson will not be expected to carry a major offensive load, like A-Rod was over the past decade or so. Nor will Johnson need to. If he puts up numbers like he did last year in Tampa, or even a bit higher (more in line with his career numbers, say 15-20 home runs, 70-80 RBI, and 50-60 runs scored, which isn't too shabby!) then Johnson should be a perfectly serviceable third baseman. In fact, he's probably the one infielder I am least worried about. He should be good - not great, but not bad, either - just as he's been over the majority of his career.