New York Yankees: Can Kelly Johnson Carry the Load at Third Base?

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | The key benefit to Alex Rodriguez's suspension was that it allowed the New York Yankees to reallocate their budget and eventually land Japanese star pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.

However, the loss of Rodriguez has once again left the Yankees in a bind, as they'll head into spring training with Kelly Johnson at the top of the third-base depth chart.

Can Johnson, who has played just 16 games at the hot corner during his career, provide enough production to be the main component at the position?

Johnson was signed by the Yankees, his fifth team in five seasons, with the intention of being a super-utility man because of his fielding versatility. He has mainly played second base during his career, but was shifted around the field in 2013 as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Johnson hits left-handed with pop, which complements Yankee Stadium's short porch in right field. Johnson hit .235/.305/.410 with 16 home runs (all against right-handed pitching) in 407 plate appearances in 2013. He has hit at least 16 home runs in his last four seasons, topping out at 26 with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010. That was his most productive season with the bat, as he finished with a slash line of .284/.370/.496 and 5.4 WAR, according to FanGraphs.

Unfortunately, ever since that season, Johnson's on-base percentage has plummeted and his strikeout rate, which was never very good, has grown to detrimental levels. He is a dead-red hitter, producing high run values, especially when thrown a straight fastball. He has a difficult time with sliders and curve balls.

Interestingly, Johnson's splits over the course of his career favor hitting same-side pitching. He owns a career OPS of .770 versus southpaws and .759 against righties. Much of this relates to an incredible .953 OPS in 2010 against lefties. The last few seasons, Johnson's OPS splits have been more defined, favoring hitting against righties -- 2011 (.626/.750 OPS), 2012 (.607/.705) and 2013 (.686/.723).

Because of the recent splits, many believe there will be a right-handed hitter to complement Johnson. The Yankees spent a lot of money this offseason on offense and should be better in many areas where third base does not need to be fielded by a top-notch option. But Johnson will have to perform well when he is in there, because there might be a considerable drop-off from whoever claims the right-handed at-bats.

Eduardo Nunez and Brendan Ryan are on the 40-man roster, with Nunez likely to get first crack despite a poor 2013 season (-1.4 WAR). Ryan is likely going to be fit in where needed around the infield, especially as a back up to shortstop Derek Jeter.

The Bombers signed right-handed hitting Scott Sizemore to a minor league deal and he could battle Nunez, who has a minor league option left, for a spot on the team. Dean Anna (left-handed hitter) and Yangervis Solarte (switch-hitter) have also been mentioned as players who will be given a look at third base in the spring. Right-handed-hitting third basemen Russ Canzler and Zealous Wheeler were also given non-roster invites to spring training.

I'll be honest, not one of those players gives me confidence as the right-side option. What happens if none of the right-handed hitters perform well for the Yankees in the spring? Will they be forced to test Johnson, with hopes that he can once again perform well against left-handers?

I'm not sure that would be a bad thing. It is possible with more reps he'll regain some form versus southpaws, reducing the difference between the splits so they are not as severe as they've become as his plate appearances against lefties have diminished. It is possible if the Yankees use him as the everyday third baseman, they can gain further value on his one-year, $3 million deal.

Whether this becomes a strict platoon or not, Johnson will get most of the at-bats as the third baseman unless there is a move made between now and the beginning of the season. Since that seems unlikely, expect to see Johnson to remain at the top of the depth chart on opening day.

I'll go out on a limb and suggest a season line of .250/.320/.420 with 20 homers in 550 plate appearances is not out of the question. That would be much more than the Yankees received from anyone in 2013 at third base. As the season progresses, I believe the Yankees will look at Johnson as a important under-the-radar signing.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Please see the author's profile page for recent articles detailing what the Yankees can expect from their players in 2014 as part of an ongoing series.

Chris Carelli is a freelance sports writer/editor and the Director of Content Strategy for Sportsideo. Besides his work as a New York Yankees contributor for Yahoo Sports, Chris created and maintains his own blog site, The Baseball Stance, which provides commentary about all of Major League Baseball. He is a member of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Connect with Chris on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.
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