Kelly Johnson: The Perfectly Pedestrian Journeyman

The July 31st trade deadline will be here before we know it, but we’re currently at the point where teams are figuring out if they want to be buyers or sellers. As utility infielder Kelly Johnson is well aware, however, players can be traded nearly any time. Justin Gorman sets out to explore this perfectly pedestrian journeyman’s career path.

Less than a year after being traded from the Atlanta Braves to the New York Mets, journeyman utility player Kelly Johnson finds himself in the same situation, having been traded to the New York Mets from the Atlanta Braves (he was granted free agency by the Mets in the off-season and signed by Atlanta in January). It’s no secret that Johnson has been one of the more nomadic players in recent memory, but yesterday’s trade made me wonder how many players have been exchanged for Kelly Johnson, and how much money he has made relative to his statistical output during said odyssey.

When one looks at Johnson’s career totals, it comes as no surprise that he has been in high demand, especially since he so routinely signed one-year deals and registered a career OPS+ of 101, good for almost exactly league average. However, the real story is how many transactions he has been involved in over the past 11 years, and the return for him in each of these trades.

Johnson was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the first round (38th pick) of the 2000 Rule 4 Draft on June 5, 2000 and signed exactly one week later. His first taste of big-league action was in 2005, when he was called up to the majors due to a rash of injuries. He slashed a rather pedestrian .241/.334/.397 in a regular role as an outfielder. Prior to the 2006 season, he signed a 1-year, $336,000 contract. Unfortunately, Johnson experienced discomfort in his elbow shortly thereafter in spring training, eventually undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing the entire 2006 season.

Over the course of 2007-2009, he played in 403 games for the Braves, mostly at second base, in which he batted (on average) .262/.342/.430 (OPS+ 102). He earned salaries of $380k, $430k, and $2.825M over that time, totaling $3,635,000 for three years of league-average performance. That’s not a bad haul for Johnson, and a relative bargain for Atlanta.

After the 2009 season, Johnson took his first ride through free agency, and was signed to a one-year, $2.35M contract by the Arizona Diamondbacks. His 2010 season with Arizona was easily his best, as he put up big numbers – .284/.370/.496 with 26 HR, 71 RBI, and 13 SB, all career highs to that point, with a 127 OPS+. By most measures, Johnson put up All-Star caliber numbers that year, but lost out to Martin Prado, Chase Utley, and Brandon Phillips.

Despite not being selected to the All-Star team in 2010, Johnson leveraged his best season to cash in, signing a one-year, $5.8M contract with Arizona for the 2011 season. After an abysmal start to the year (.209/.287/.412, despite 18 HR), the Diamondbacks (TRADE ONE!) shipped Johnson off to the Toronto Blue Jays for Aaron Hill and John McDonald on August 23. In 33 games for Toronto, Johnson hit .270/.364/.417 in a small sample size (132 PA), helping the Blue Jays avoid a last place finish in the AL East, where they finished 4th with an 81-81 record.

That 33-game stretch apparently endeared Johnson to John Farrell, Alex Anthopolous, and their Torontonian cohort, as they signed Johnson to a (somewhat whopping) one-year, $6.375M deal in 2012. Not one for long-term deals, Johnson went on to sign a 1-year, $2.45M contract with Tampa Bay in 2013, and a 1-year, $3M deal with the Yankees for the 2014 season. Between the start of the 2012 season and the July 2014 trade deadline, Johnson produced well below-average numbers – to the tune of .226/.307/.382, good for an OPS+ of 92 in 337 games played.

The next month or so of 2014 demonstrated how expendable Johnson had become. After playing for three AL East teams since the beginning of the 2012 season, his divisional tour was completed by the end of 2014. The Yankees traded (TRADE TWO!) Johnson at the July 31 deadline to the Boston Red Sox for Stephen Drew – a similarly underwhelming, overpaid utilityman – plus $500k. The Sox then closed the loop a month later on August 31, 2014, by trading Johnson (TRADE THREE!) and Michael Almanzar to the Baltimore Orioles for Jemile Weeks and Ivan De Jesus.

[For those keeping score at home, the Boston Red Sox signed Stephen Drew to a one-year, $10.093M contract on May 20, 2014. They received 39 games out of Drew that year, and during those games he slashed .176/.255/.328, an OPS+ of… wait for it… 62. They then sent him, PLUS A HALF MILLION DOLLARS, to the obviously cash-strapped New York Yankees for Kelly Johnson, whom they then traded (along with another player) for two minor leaguers who are no longer in the organization – DeJesus was granted free agency after the 2014 year, and Weeks after the 2015 season. The only (microscopic) consolation is that Almanzar has been an underwhelming AAA piece in the Baltimore organization since the trade. Ok, back to Kelly Johnson.]

Johnson signed a (surprise!) one-year, $1.5M contract to return to Atlanta prior to the 2015 season, where he notched some moderately successful numbers – .275/.321/.451, OPS+ of 114, with nine homers and 34 RBI in 62 games. The Braves sent him (TRADE FOUR!) and fellow journeyman Juan Uribe to the New York Mets at the 2015 trade deadline for minor-league pitcher Rob Whalen and wacky-mechanics-and-major-league-contributor John Gant. In 49 games for the Metropolitans, Johnson’s mediocrity returned – .250/.304/.414, OPS+ of 98. John Q. Average.  Recognizing Johnson’s low ceiling, New York granted him free agency after the season ended.

For the third time in his career, Johnson found himself back with the Braves in 2016 on – you guessed it – another one-year deal, this time worth $2M, good for 14th highest salary on the team. After lighting the world on fire with a .215/.273/.289 (OPS+ of 56) in 49 games, the Braves parted ways with Johnson on June 8, 2016, sending him (TRADE FIVE!) and cash to the (apparently forgetful) New York Mets for prospect Akeel Morris. Morris had a sip of coffee in 2015 with the Mets, where he burned the tongue right out of his mouth – one appearance, 2/3 of an inning, faced eight batters and gave up three hits, five earned runs, three walks, and a home run for good measure. ERA? 67.50.

All told, Kelly Johnson has made north of $25M in his career, all on one-year deals, for having one very good year and many other years that were, at best, mediocre. His avoidance of long-term deals has made him a magnet for trade partners.  The Diamondbacks arguably received the best return for Johnson by acquiring McDonald and Hill, the Red Sox took a bath on Drew and Johnson, receiving nothing but a lower payroll, and the Braves ended up with multiple pitching prospects, with one contributing at the major league level. Giving credit where credit is due – Johnson has made the most out of one very good season.

Justin Gorman has written about manager tirades, baseball contracts, an illegal delivery, and the case for expansion.

Follow Justin on Twitter @j1gorman.

About Justin Gorman 32 Articles
A native of New Hampshire, Justin grew up in western Massachusetts and is primarily a Red Sox fan, and secondarily an attorney. He and his wife live in the Atlanta area with their dogs. Justin is a co-host for SoSHCast (the Sons of Sam Horn Podcast) with Damian Dydyn.

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