The Nick Johnson Quandry

This winter’s free agent class is full of guys with significant amounts of both talent and risk, especially on the pitching side of things. Rich Harden, Ben Sheets, Erik Bedard, Brad Penny, Brett Myers, John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez – the talent pool is very deep in guys with All-Star upside and spend-the-year-rehabbing downside. But it’s not just pitchers, either – there’s a first baseman who offers a similar problem for GMs with a shopping list.

I’m speaking of Mr. Disabled List himself, Nick Johnson. His list of health problems is longer than a typical Joe Posnanski column and not nearly as entertaining. With 542 plate appearances this year, this is only the third season in his career he’s topped the 500+ PA mark. But, as usual, he’s been an on base machine when on the field.

His .427 OBP ranks 3rd in baseball, behind two guys named Pujols and Mauer. He hasn’t posted an on base percentage below .400 since 2004, when he played for the Expos. Once again, he has more walks than strikeouts, and even without his usual power this year, he’s still been one of the league’s better hitters.

However, Johnson turns 31 tomorrow, and given his various surgeries and skill set, it’s fair to suggest that he’s walking around with the body of a 50 year old. He can hit, but his abilities to run and field have diminished, and his ability to stay on the field will always be in question. Just because he was healthy this year doesn’t mean he’ll be healthy next year. Unless the team invests in a protective bubble for him to walk around in, guaranteeing multiple years to a guy with his injury history is a pretty big risk.

Johnson’s production this year has been worth 2.5 wins, and the way he’s hitting in September, he could end the year as a +3 win player. Without all the injury concerns, we’d expect that level of player to get a multi-year deal for something between $10 and $15 million a year after a bidding war for his services broke out. But is anyone really giving Nick Johnson $30 to $35 million for his age 31 to 33 seasons? I doubt it.

My guess is Johnson will have to go year to year for the rest of his career, and teams will attempt to entice him with more dollars rather than more years. But an on base machine that doesn’t require a long term deal to sign is going to be a pretty popular target, so Johnson could find himself in the interesting scenario of having a whole bunch of teams bidding up his 2010 salary.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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13 years ago

Has anyone done a study on injury history and how well it predicts future injuries?

I’m guessing that projection systems approximate this by using games played?