Sometimes, a simple change of scenery is all that is needed to take a struggling player and turn him into a productive one. Or maybe, with the two men Chris Johnson was replacing on the Indians roster when Cleveland acquired him from Atlanta at the beginning of August this past season, he just looked that much better compared to the bloated contracts and statistically starved Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn.
Johnson’s arrival was part of what turned into a winning movement by the Indians, who put together their second-best month of the year, win wise, in August. A lot of theories could explain the change in production and culture in the clubhouse, but the results on the field were positive and seemed to carry through the rest of the season.
Johnson came to Cleveland after his third season with the Braves. After being among the National League leaders in hitting in 2013 with a .321 average, he tailed off to a .263 mark in 2014 and just a .235 average through 56 games of an injury-slowed 2015 season.
With the Tribe, his numbers perked up as he hit .289 with four doubles, a homer, and seven RBI in 27 games. A fluke spider bite forced him onto the disabled list for a chunk of time after hitting .429 with nine hits though his first six arachnid-free games with the club. He hit a combined .255 with eleven doubles, three homers, and 18 RBI in 83 games by season’s end.
Initially, it seemed as though the Johnson-Bourn-Swisher trade was going to free up a significant sum of cash for the Indians. Instead, it spread around the obligation better to allow some spending to be done in 2016 by getting the bigger contracts off of the books at once. It also opened up a much needed roster spot by moving the two men for just one replacement.
The trade does not, however, clear Cleveland of all lofty financial obligations, as a substantial amount of money was moved in the deal and the Indians still hold Johnson’s contract, one that seems exaggerated given his declining production in recent years.
Johnson is owed at least $17.5 million on his remaining deal. The seven-year veteran, who turned 30 on October 1st just before the season ended, is set to earn $7.5 million for the 2016 season and another $9 million for 2017. The Indians hold a team option of $10 million for the 2018 season with a $1 million buyout.
If the Indians can find a taker, Johnson would be a piece to move.
The financial burden for a player of his ilk may be reason enough. His offensive numbers have declined and he has contributed little power over the last few seasons. He walks at a notably low rate and strikes out a lot, making his declining batting average all the more relevant next to an equally low on-base percentage. While his splits still make him a favorable option against left-handed pitching, the right-handed hitting Johnson hit just .212 against righties this past season and .231 in 2014. He hit .326 against southpaws in 2015, .395 the year before, and .383 in 2013, increasing his likelihood as a potential platoon option as compared to being an everyday player.
He offers little defensively, especially anything that would be an upgrade for the Indians. He has spent the majority of his playing time in the field at third base, where he has never had a fielding percentage higher than .978 and played as low as .908 there in 2010. His career fielding percentage of .945 at the hot corner will lead one to believe he will not be cutting into Giovanny Urshela’s playing time there any time soon, especially as a fellow right-handed bat. At first base, he has made just one error in 355 chances over four seasons at the position, but he also performed at a full putout and assist lower per inning played in 2015 than his counterparts at third base.
His range factor at both positions for his career is below average.
He is not the right-handed bat that the team has been lacking and is several years removed from the most productive seasons of his career. He has hit as many as 15 homers and driven in as many as 76 runs in his breakout 2012 season (split between Houston and Arizona). He followed it with his .321 mark in his first year in Atlanta. Since then, the numbers have been on a steady decline.
His contract is a bad one for the Tribe, but by comparison to those he replaced, it is much more palpable. Even if Johnson becomes a $7.5 million platoon piece, he may still remain better than the $14 million Bourn and $15 million Swisher. If Cleveland can move the contract along and reduce some of his financial burden or use him to bring in a veteran outfielder or reliever in need of his own change of scenery, it may be the better course of action for the club and their new general manager.
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