The signing of Johnson continues the Rays' offseason plan of acquiring players coming off of down years on bargain contracts. Though terms of the deal with Johnson have not yet been disclosed, the contract isn't likely to be very expensive given the lack of reported suitors for his services.
This winter, the Rays have traded for Yunel Escobar and his cheap, one-year, $5 million contract with two club options, signed Roberto Hernandez to a one-year, $3.25 million contract, signed James Loney to a one-year, $2 million contract, re-signed Kyle Farnsworth to a one-year deal worth up to $3 million, re-signed Joel Peralta to a two-year, $6 million contract with three club options and re-signed Luke Scott to a one-year deal for an undisclosed amount.
Of that group of acquisitions, only Peralta is coming off of a good season in 2012. Peralta had a 3.63 ERA over 67 innings with a strikeout rate of 11.3 per nine innings pitched last year.
Escobar hit only .253/.300/.344, Loney was even worse at .249/.293/.336 and Scott hit only .229/.285/.439. Hernandez was blasted for a 7.53 ERA in only three starts after serving a suspension for identity fraud, and Farnsworth put up a 4.00 ERA over 27 injury-plagued innings.
However, Escobar, Scott and Farnsworth were all very good in 2011, and Hernandez was very good in 2010. Loney's best season was way back in 2007, but he was serviceable from 2008-2011 before falling off drastically last year.
The one blockbuster move the Rays made this offseason was to trade ace pitcher James Shields and reliever Wade Davis to the Kansas City Royals for top prospect Wil Myers and additional prospects. The signing of Johnson will give the Rays the flexibility to open the season with Myers in Triple-A and avoid starting his service clock, which pushes off his eventual free agency by another year, according to Rosenthal and Morosi:
The move will enable the Rays to use Ben Zobrist in right field as well at second base, enabling them to hold off promoting top prospect Wil Myers. Johnson, 30, also might see time in the outfield. He played 79 games in left field for the Atlanta Braves in 2005.
Johnson is just two years removed from a breakout year in which he hit .284/.370/.496 with 26 home runs for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Since then, he's combined to hit just .223/.308/.390.
Strikeouts and pop-ups have been the main culprits for his decline. After striking out in 22 percent of his plate appearances in 2010, Johnson struck out in 26.6 percent of his plate appearances in 2011 and in 27.4 percent of his plate appearances last season.
He's also had a lower batting average on balls in play (BABIP) since his outstanding 2010 season when he batted .339 on contact. That number dropped to .277 in 2011 and .292 last year.
Part of the reason for his drop in BABIP has been his increase in infield pop-ups. Johnson popped up just 2.4 percent of the time in 2010, but that figure increased to 4.6 percent in 2011 and 9.4 percent last year.
Even amidst his struggles of the past two seasons, Johnson has shown skills that make him worth the gamble for the Rays. He's maintained his patience at the plate by walking in more than 10 percent of his plate appearances over the past two seasons, and he's maintained some of his power by blasting 37 home runs during that period.
Johnson's combination of patience and power makes him an asset worth acquiring. If he can cut down on his strikeouts and pop-ups, he's still young enough to get back to his outstanding 2010 level of performance. He also offers the Rays some positional flexibility because he can play second base, the outfield and designated hitter.
The Rays' strategy this offseason has been to buy low on players coming off of down years but with past seasons of success on their resumes. This strategy has worked for them in the past, with Casey Kotchman, Jeff Keppinger and Fernando Rodney being the most recent examples.
Kotchman hit .217 in 2010, then improved to .306 with Tampa Bay in 2011. Keppinger hit .277 in 2011 before busting out with the Rays by hitting .325 last year.
Fernando Rodney had a 4.50 ERA with more walks than strikeouts in 2011. Last year, his ERA dropped down to an infinitesimal 0.60, and he struck out 76 against just 15 walks.
The Rays are betting that Johnson can be the latest reclamation project that rediscovers his past success in Tampa Bay. If he can put the ball in play more and avoid those dreaded pop-ups, he will be another feather in the cap for the low-budget Rays.