This Monday, the O’s signed veteran corner infielder Chris Johnson to little fanfare. It didn’t merit an article here (or almost anywhere else), and on the surface it looks like a typical bottom-of-the-barrel signing that Dan Duquette tends to make this time of year.
So, why am I taking the time to write about him? In retrospect this might turn out to be a mistake. The Orioles career of Chris Johnson could easily go the way of Hideki Okajima, Wandy Rodriguez and Mike Carp in 2016, or Matt Tuiasosopo and J.P. Arencibia the year before that.
Johnson could definitely end up joining that ever-expanding list of MLB veterans who you’ve heard of, but completely forgot were technically Orioles for a month or two during one offseason. It seems like that list contains about a hundred players by now.
It might not be that simple, though. Johnson brings something to the table that the O’s could actually use: the ability to hit left-handed pitching.
The Orioles’ struggles against southpaws is well-documented, and their two presumptive starting corner outfielders are left-handed hitters that are borderline unplayable unless they have the platoon advantage.
My preference based on what the Orioles currently have is for them to dump the two Rule 5 picks and put Mark Trumbo in right field against lefties, with Joey Rickard in left field and Trey Mancini at DH.
But what if the O’s decide Mancini would be better served playing every day in Norfolk rather than starting every third game or so in the big leagues? What if Mancini does stick around but ends up struggling?
Also, what if J.J. Hardy gets hurt? Ryan Flaherty would presumably take the bulk of the third base duties with Manny Machado moving to short, but do you really want Flaherty and his career 66 wRC+ against lefties out there against David Price or Chris Sale?
Clearly you don’t have to squint too much to see a situation where there will be at-bats up for grabs against left-handed pitchers. In Johnson, the Orioles have a guy with a career .764 OPS and 108 wRC+ in those situations.
Those of you who aren’t familiar with Johnson might ask why he was even available on a minor-league deal in the first place. Part of the reason he doesn’t have more of a reputation is that it seems like every team he’s been on has refused to use him properly.
Despite the fact that he’s clearly best used as a platoon bat, he’s logged over two thousand plate appearances against right-handed pitchers compared to just 771 against lefties. Because of that, his career numbers are unimpressive overall. Teams aren’t fighting each other to sign a first baseman who’s a below league-average hitter.
That said, the bigger reason he was available on a minor league deal is that he was terrible last season. Johnson hit .222/.281/.329 last year for the Marlins and was nearly a full win below replacement level. Even more concerning is that he had just a .618 OPS over 99 plate appearances against left-handers.
A cursory look at his stats would tell you Johnson has been awful for two years in a row, but for the Orioles’ purposes that’s not really true. Johnson’s overall batting line in 2015 was nearly as bad as it was last year, but that’s hiding his .326 average and 107 wRC+ against lefties that season.
Johnson was especially dreadful against righties (47 wRC+, .550 OPS) in 2015, and as usual, he wasn’t used properly ; about 60% of his at-bats were against right-handed pitching. For the O’s, that number should be 0%.
Johnson is 32, and there’s a chance that last season was simply the start of a steep decline. He might just be bad now, and if so he may never put on an O’s uniform in the regular season. If he’s not, though, he could end up with a bigger-than-expected role for the 2017 Orioles.
For every handful of Mike Carps and Johan Santanas that the Orioles sign, there’s the occasional Nate McLouth. Every once in a while, one of these guys works out and actually contributes.
Johnson may not be the next McLouth, but he could be. We’re talking about a player who had a .314/.350/.436 career line against left-handed pitching going into last season. If 2016 was just a blip and Johnson could become his former self again, he could be an unexpected boost to the Orioles’ lineup this year.