Reed Johnson: The Fourth Outfielder
Following a sub-par 2010 season with the Dodgers, the Cubs brought Reed Johnson back to the friendly confines on a minor league deal in 2010. Johnson won a spot on the active roster during spring training, and rewarded the Cubs by posting a .309/.346/.467 in 266 plate appearances. The Cubs then rewarded Johnson by bringing him back for $1.15 million this season.
Johnson was actually not expected to be the fourth outfielder in 2011. That role was supposed to be filled by Tyler Colvin, who many anticipated would get fairly regular playing time against right handed pitchers in both corners of the outfield, as well as some spot duty for Marlon Byrd in center field. Barring injury, Johnson was only expected to get regular playing time subbing for Kosuke Fukudome against left handed pitchers. But a typically hot start by Kosuke Fukudome and a 10 home run April by Alfonso Soriano provided only limited playing time for Colvin, who struggled mightily all season and spent much of the year in Iowa.
Johnson, on the other hand, had his best offensive season since at least 2008, and Mike Quade clearly considered Johnson his fourth outfielder by the end of April. With that said, no one should expect Reed Johnson to be able to match his 2011 numbers, particularly against right handed pitchers. For his career, Reed Johnson has posted a .266/.324/.382 against right handed pitching. In 2011, Johnson put up a .312/.361/.468 in 157 plate appearances against right handed pitching.
How did Johnson do this? As is typical in an outlier year with a small sample size of plate appearances, the answer is BABIP. Johnson posted a .410 BABIP against right handed pitchers last season. The odds of him repeating that performance are extraordinarily slim.
It would be more reasonable to expect Johnson to put up numbers in line with his .305/.330/.467 against left handed pitching in 2011, with significantly worse numbers more indicative of his career averages against right handed pitching.
This doesn’t mean that Johnson has no value to the 2012 Cubs. David DeJesus, who will be the regular starter in right field against right handed pitching, struggles against left handed pitching. And while age has reduced Johnson to a fringy fielder in center, he is still solid in both corner outfield positions.
Considering Dave Sappelt and Tony Campana are essentially ready to fulfill their roles as career bench outfielders, this is likely Reed Johnson’s last season with the Cubs. But Johnson is the sort of guy the Cubs might want to transition to their coaching staff if he retires after the season. He is a smart player who has turned pretty unremarkable tools into a ten year major league career, and guys like that tend to make pretty good coaches. Johnson is also an easy player to root for, which I will be more than happy to do in a season that will probably be his swan song with the Cubs.