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Saturday, September 3, 2011
Getting Kelly Johnson, or getting picks?

By Jack Moore

On November 4th, 2010, the Toronto Blue Jays acquired Miguel Olivo from the Colorado Rockies. As you probably know, the Blue Jays’ season was well past finished by November 4th. However, the Blue Jays added Olivo with the sole purpose of paying him $500,000 for the right to make him a free agent.

As Norm MacDonald would say, "Wait, what?"

This move was all a small part of the Jays' offseason master plan to control the draft. Olivo was a Type B free agent, and he was merely one of five compensation-eligible players the Jays controlled at the conclusion of the 2010 season (Jason Frasor, Scott Downs, John Buck and Kevin Gregg). Although they didn't bring back a haul on level with the Rays (who owned 11 of the top 75 picks), the Jays added five extra picks between numbers 30 and 80, and they signed all five draftees.

Toronto's Kelly Johnson
Acquiring Kelly Johnson could result in the Blue Jays acquiring picks.
Enter Kelly Johnson. The erstwhile Diamondbacks second baseman gave Arizona a .377 wOBA and 5.9 fWAR in 2010, but his performance dipped severely in 2011. He put up a .209 batting average (.309 wOBA) and Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson was clearly fed up, benching Johnson more and more often as the season progressed, eventually forcing GM Kevin Towers to deal Johnson away for another second baseman. Thus Aaron Hill became a Diamondback and Kelly Johnson became a Blue Jay.

It was another "Wait, what?" moment for the Blue Jays, as Johnson is a free agent at the end of the season and the Jays, saddled with the misfortune of playing in the AL East, have zero postseason aspirations this season. Things come into focus, however, when you realize Johnson's proximity to that vaunted Type A status.

Type A free agents are not a risk-free proposition, however. To get the picks, a Type A free agent must be offered arbitration, and players who accept arbitration almost certainly receive raises over their previous season's salary, meaning that Johnson stands to make at least $6 million next season should he accept. But between Johnson's talent and the Jays' roster situation, the Jays have set themselves up to come out ahead in most imaginable scenarios.

Scenario 1: Johnson accepts arbitration. The Blue Jays already have a supremely talented lineup with Jose Bautista, Yunel Escobar, Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus and J.P. Arencibia. Improvements from Travis Snider and Adam Lind would put them on a similar level to elite offenses like their division rivals in Boston and New York. Adding Johnson -- a player who's compiled 15 fWAR over the past five seasons -- would fill the only true hole in their lineup at second base on a low-risk one-year deal.

Scenario 2: Johnson declines arbitration, but his Type A designation drives away the 29 other teams. As before, the Jays manage to fill their hole at second base by eventually re-signing Johnson, and as before it comes with low risk due to the leverage of being the only team in negotiations without something to lose by signing Johnson. In this scenario, team-friendly option years could come into play as well, adding to the Jays' competitive advantage.

Scenario 3: Johnson declines arbitration and signs with another team as a free agent. This is the easy one for Toronto. The Jays would definitely receive a supplemental first-round pick and could even add a late first rounder if Johnson is signed by one of the top 15 teams. The Jays can then use the money cleared off the books (including the final $5 million they owe Vernon Wells) to sign a suitable second baseman -- and that’s on top of the picks received from Johnson's defection.

As one our member blogs is so fond of reminding us, predicting baseball is difficult. As such, disadvantaged teams like the Blue Jays must set themselves up to succeed in any feasible situation. Alex Anthopolous appears to understand this concept quite well. Although the Kelly Johnson acquisition presented itself as a "Wait, what?" moment initially, the youthful Jays GM simply saw a chance to grab a low-risk, high-reward asset, and, as his M.O. has been since replacing J.P. Ricciardi, Anthopolous took it and ran with it.


Jack Moore writes the Disciples of Uecker Brewers blog, part of the SweetSpot network.