Broken hamate bone. Stop me if you’ve heard that before. It’s the same injury that plagued Jose Ramirez as the Cleveland Indians tussled with the Minnesota Twins down the stretch in 2019. A certain other member of the Indians organization suffered a similar setback in 2018, while a member of the Washington Nationals. It derailed a string of impressive minor league campaigns as he was ascending the ranks of the soon-to-be world champions.
Enter Daniel Johnson. Acquired following the 2018 season as a chip in the return for beloved Indians catcher Yan Gomes, Johnson had a lot to prove. Most notably, he had to prove that his mediocrity in 2018 was a mere blip on the radar, a byproduct of the hamate injury.
Bounce back, he did. Johnson debuted in Akron and battered around enough Double-A pitching to get the call to Columbus after just 167 plate appearances. Those were, in fact, his first 167 plate appearances in the Indians system. The 152 wRC+ mark aside, getting the nod that early in his Cleveland career is a sure-fire sign the organizational brass was keyed in on him and waiting.
Johnson continued to find success against Triple-A pitching over the next 2/3 of his 2019. Twenty jacks and approximately a nine percent walk rate between his two stops on I-71 put him in the discussion for 2020. Adding to the discussion are the tools, which Johnson boasts in spades.
Wheels? Check the box. Prospect gurus pegged him at 70-grade speed and he showed off the wheels in the 2018 Arizona Fall League clocking a sprint speed of over 30 miles per hour.
Arm strength? That’s a mere 80-grade from the prospect evaluators. Some questions about instinctual and feel capabilities point him towards the corner outfield spots despite his speed, but these should play up the value of the arm tool considerably. Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen had this to say about Johnson following the Indians acquisition:
“He has arm strength, plus-plus speed, and plus raw power.”
Tools alone make Johnson a pretty safe bet in relative prospect terms. A baseline walk rate hovering around average to average plus and running into the occasional bleacher-finder, in addition to the previously mentioned arm and wheels, could provide a steady foundation for a productive major league player.
Cough, speaking of bleacher-finders. Watch this:
That’s new Indians pitcher David Hernandez, with a whiplash greeting to Progressive Field courtesy of the subject of this article. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype after watching that no doubter. But the time is now for Daniel Johnson, who turns 25 on Saturday, July 11.
There is a slight mess of traffic that will factor into who gets the nod in the outfield for the Indians in 2020. The first domino that will have to fall is Franmil Reyes. After the Indians signed another designated hitter type in Domingo Santana, Franmil’s value can be leveraged in the outfield. This would, of course, take away outfield reps from either Daniel Johnson or Oscar Mercado or Tyler Naquin.
ZiPS, a useful projection system developed by FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski, offers the following picture for the trio over the course of the 2020 shortened season. Oscar Mercado, 76 wRC+ with 0.3 wins above replacement over 222 plate appearances. Tyler Naquin, 92 wRC+ with 0.3 wins above replacement over 124 plate appearances. Daniel Johnson, 81 wRC+ with 0.0 wins above replacement over 199 plate appearances.
The caveat with those, as you can see in Oscar Mercado’s projections, is that defense and base running are pretty valuable. Speed and arm strength happen to be Daniel Johnson’s two biggest tools, coincidentally. Now, other inputs are abound in the defense and base running calculation, but defensive metrics are a mess of uncertainty in review, let alone when attempted to be utilized for prognostication purposes.
Thus, the gap between Johnson and Naquin and Mercado in these projections of perceived impact is minimal. A probable rotation seems like the long-term play, as plate appearances could be identified for all three over the course of the season.
Operate under the assumption that the Indians outfield has approximately 720 outfield plate appearances to allocate among their outfielders (60 games x 3 spots x 4 plate appearances per game). These must be distributed between Greg Allen, Delino DeShields, Jake Bauers, Oscar Mercado, Jordan Luplow, Tyler Naquin, and Franmil Reyes. Assuming Domingo Santana is virtually unplayable out there and will occupy around half of the designated hitter plate appearances (120 or so).
Franmil is a bat that needs to be kept in the lineup. He’s earned his way, so we can give him the other 120 designated hitter swings and 120 in the outfield, leaving us with 600 outfield plate appearances to distribute, optimistically. Oscar Mercado’s 2019, in this author’s opinion, locked him into at least 180 of the maximum 240 plate appearances available for a given outfielder. Down to 420 left to allocate.
Jordan Luplow made his home against left-handed pitching in 2019. Approximately one-third of the league’s plate appearances last year were against lefties. This locks Luplow into one-third of 240, or 80. Plus, we will call it an additional 80 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers.
Subtract Luplow’s 160 trips to the dish from the 420 remaining prior and we are down to just 260. We must identify how to distribute these between Greg Allen, Jake Bauers, Delino DeShields, Daniel “The Jet” Johnson, and Tyler Naquin, assuming full health. Bradley Zimmer is lurking around with a tight hamstring in addition to some other ailment, probably.
It’s not a straightforward or simple task. Sure, criticisms could be made in how this author allocated Mercado or Reyes or Santana or Luplow’s plate appearances, but they are merely loose estimates.
Given Daniel Johnson’s dominance of minor league pitching over the course of his career and his pending 25th birthday, the time is now to concede a large chunk of those 260 plate appearances. Naquin can be helpful. DeShields will play. Bauers and Allen probably aren’t write-offs, yet. None of them, however, could provide a larger impact to the direction of subsequent years, though, than Daniel Johnson. If he is healthy and doesn’t manage at least 100 plate appearances in 2020, assuming a season completes, it seems like a failure. It’s time to make the difficult decision and #letDJspin.