NEW YORK - Nick Johnson #36 of the New York Yankees hits a solo home run against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Nick Johnson is back. On a minor-league deal with the Orioles. This isn't how things were supposed to turn out.
Nick Johnson signed a minor-league deal with the Orioles. Of course there's Nick Johnson news on the same day that we learn Rich Harden is out for the season. These things happen in threes. If you're wondering what the third depressing and injurious situation is, remember that starting tomorrow you can watch Jar Jar Binks take away your childlike sense of hope and anticipation in a whole new dimension!
Johnson has had three distinct stages to his career:
This was during the Great Sabermetric Enlightenment, or one of them anyway. When the Internet was taking off, and all you needed to be a part of the revolution was to know that high on-base percentages were super keen, Nick Johnson was a demigod. Loooooook at these stats:
He had the youth. He had the tools. He was the perfect sabermetric darling. It didn't matter that he was a slow first baseman. He could have fielded like Adam Dunn wearing scuba gear, and he still would have been most coveted prospect in baseball to a lot of folks.
After being traded to the "Expos" in a blockbuster deal for Javier Vazquez, Johnson realized his promise in a 147-game marathon season with the Washington Nationals (.290/.428/.520 in 500 at-bats), Johnson missed 2007 entirely. He had a reputation of being fragile before, but this was the beginning of the end. He became a baseball drifter, getting traded to the Marlins for a pitcher who was struggling in AA at the time. He played in 35 games for the Marlins, going on the DL only once in his two months.
Following the 2009 season, he was a free agent. That meant your team could have had him. All that on-base percentage could be yours, and it wouldn't be a long-term commitment! The Giants made a two-year offer, but the Yankees offered the promise of a playoff berth, so Johnson returned home to New York. The Giants won the World Series with their second choice offering from the dumpster; Johnson cost the Yankees $5.5 million for 24 games.
From 2008 through 2010, at any given time during the day, there was a fan of another team thinking "Well, what about Nick Johnson?"
This is the part where the Orioles get him, where dreams are extinguished in a puff of orange feathers. Last year, Nick Johnson had a miserable season in AAA for the Columbus Clippers, hitting .201/.316/.332. The walks were gone. The average was gone. Johnson wasn't even a shell of himself -- he was a shell of Todd Benzinger.
But that's one bad season where -- and I'm just guessing here -- he was playing through an injury. Even when he was hitting .167 for the Yankees in 2010, he had a .388 OBP. There's still a chance that if the hip bone connects to the thigh bone the way it's supposed to, that Nick Johnson could be the walk machine he was. And as a minor-league depth player, he's a fine acquisition.
Saying something like "If Ryan Vogelsong" is almost a cliche at this point, but there are people who come out of nowhere every season, claiming a career that was thought to be long expired, and most of them didn't have a third of the latent talent that Johnson had at one point.
It's a no-risk proposition for the Orioles. And if it works, they could have a first baseman. They might even have a minor trade chip in July. When Orioles call you about a trade, and they offer the extended warranty, take it. Here's hoping that Johnson can add a fourth phase to his career -- one where he's a successful and healthy on-base machine. The Orioles and Johnson deserve as much.