22 January 2013

Orioles Have Issues at 2nd, Should Consider Kelly Johnson

Last season, the Orioles got very little production from their second basemen. Robert Andino, Ryan Flaherty, Omar Quintanilla, and Brian Roberts had a total wOBA of .261. Only the Tigers had a worst combined wOBA (.253) from their second basemen. The O's group wasn't just terrible at the plate: Their wins above replacement of -2.5 -- weighed down by awful hitting, bad baserunning (4.0 runs below average on the basepaths), and poor fielding (-12.2 UZR) -- was the worst in the majors by a full win.

Gone are Andino (traded to the Mariners for outfielder Trayvon Robinson) and Quintanilla (signed with the Mets). Flaherty and Roberts are still in Baltimore, and the new addition is Alexi Casilla, acquired via waivers.

Casilla isn't much of an improvement, but he is a modest one. He has a career .286 wOBA and hit .241/.282/.321 (.266 wOBA) last year in 106 games, the most he's ever played in a single season. He occasionally entered games as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement, though, which explains why he only had 326 plate appearances. Casilla had a solid 8.1 UZR last year, but for his career he's a replacement-level defender -- exactly, actually: 0.0 UZR. He does add some speed (13.1 career baserunning runs above average), which is useful. Considering the O's avoided arbitration with Casilla and signed him to a $1.7 million deal (with a $3 million club option in 2014), it's not a bad gamble, especially since Flaherty and Roberts are obvious question marks.

Flaherty had his moments (his most memorable probably being his Game 3 home run against the Yankees in the American League Division Series). A Rule 5 pick from the Cubs, he managed to stick with the O's all season, and he will compete for some starts at second base and a few other spots (he managed to fill in at times at first base, shortstop, third base, and both corner outfield positions). But he hit just .216/.258/.359 (.270 wOBA), and while some improvement wouldn't be surprising, he's an OK option at best.

The same can be said for Roberts, though for different reasons. Roberts hasn't played in more than 60 games since 2009, and he returned for just 17 games last year before straining his groin and eventually having season-ending hip surgery last August after doctors discovered a labrum tear. Other previous injuries of the past few seasons include a herniated disc in his lower back, an abdominal strain, and multiple concussions. When Roberts was finally able to return in 2012, a remarkable achievement considering the difficulty he had dealing with nagging concussion effects, he wasn't the same player, hitting .182/.233/.182 (.193 wOBA).

Unfortunately, Roberts continues to battle with a never-ending assortment of injuries. On Thursday, Buck Showalter hinted at a minor setback for Roberts in the offseason, which turned out to be "'some minor stuff going on' related to his surgically repaired hip." That may be why Roberts had sports hernia surgery in December. Roberts said he's fine, though, but it's yet another injury concern for the 35-year-old.

So the Casilla/Flaherty/Roberts combination is far from ideal, and there also aren't many answers in the minors. Jonathan Schoop may eventually be able to play second or third base at the major-league level, but he's not ready right now and will most likely spend the entire season in the minors. Yamaico Navarro, acquired in a trade from the Pirates for another minor leaguer, also isn't a very good fallback plan.

But signing Kelly Johnson might help. He's a free agent and 30 years old, and he's spent parts of seven major league seasons with the Braves, Diamondbacks, and Blue Jays. He's had two down years since his extremely impressive 2010 campaign, when he hit .284/.370/.496 (.378 wOBA) and posted a WAR of 5.8. In 2011, he was shipped to Toronto in August and posted a combined batting line of .222/.304/.413 (.315 wOBA), and then last season he hit .225/.313/.365 (.299 wOBA). He's about a replacement-level runner and defender in his career as well, though last season he had one of his worst in the field (-6.9 UZR).

But most of Johnson's value is at the plate, where he has some pop. Or, at least, he has previously shown the ability to hit for power. His slugging percentage has dropped in each of the last three seasons, and his isolated power dropped from .212 in 2010 to .140 in 2012 (his career low). That partially explains why he's out of a job right now. It's not surprising to find out that Johnson's HR/FB rate of 15.6% in 2010 was the highest of his career. His career average HR/FB rate is 11.7%, though it's probably between 12-13% when factoring in two odd seasons with the Braves when he had rates of 7.6% and 7.5%, respectively, despite having rates of 13.8% and 10.3% in Atlanta, respectively, in 2005 and 2007. (He missed the entire 2006 season after having Tommy John surgery.)

Johnson had a 13.7% HR/FB rate last season, which is a little above average for him. But he also hit way too many groundballs (45.2%) and not enough fly balls (33.7%). Those numbers are above/below his career averages by a few percentage points and are a factor in his power outage.

Just like the other second base options listed above, there's no guarantee that Johnson would contribute much next season. But Dan Duquette seems to relish constantly signing and discarding various fringe players, stashing them at Norfolk for a rainy day. Maybe Johnson could have a Nate McLouth-like contribution to the Orioles next season, or he could be signed one day and then be gone a few days/weeks later. There wouldn't be much risk, though, so it would make some sense.


Liam said...

I agree we need help at second but considering Johnson made $6.4 million last year and wasn't atrocious, he will probably demand a similar amount in 2013 and beyond. Unless he's willing to accept a one year deal and you think the Orioles are at the point where they have payroll space to burn and even the smallest marginal improvement is worth acquiring at any cost, I don't see Johnson as a viable option.

Sean said...

Good article.

Just wanted to note that 0 UZR is average, not replacement-level.

Jon Shepherd said...

Sean - in terms of defense, average can be termed as replacement level. This is already embraced by several data sites (e.g., Baseball Reference) and is gradually becoming the consensus understanding for the term. But, yes, you are right. A replacement player's defense is considered average.