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In Focus: The Johnson-Kearns Debate

The question I posed yesterday necessitated, in essence, a comparison of two players -- Nick Johnson and Austin Kearns. Baring roster changes, one of those two players will be counted to fill a starting roster spot in '09. Seems that for now, the majority of Nats fans would much prefer that starter to be Johnson, not Kearns.

Before I go too much deeper into this post, and before I state my own reasoning for why Johnson is the preferable option, let me state the requisite disclaimers. Yes, it's a bit premature to be filling out imaginary lineup cards with spring training still about three months (and about 2,500 calories of turkey/stuffing/pecan pie) away. And yes, based on the recent injury problems with each of these guys, the very notion that either can be counted on for a full season, much less a full sprint around the base paths, is somewhat dubious. (Plus, remember the lesson of 2008's injury catalog. We spent all of February wondering whether Dmitri Young or Johnson would start at first base; somehow, nobody ever wondered whether Paul Lo Duca or Kory Casto would win the equally relevant sixth-string first baseman's job.)

Anyway, I'll get on with it. If and when the Johnson/Kearns question becomes relevant, Johnson should be the preference, though it's not as clear-cut as some might want to believe. If you compare the career numbers that both players average across a 162-game season (a purely theoretical idea, in Johnson's star-crossed career), you get some remarkably similar statlines.

KEARNS -- .260 AVG / .354 OBP / .435 SLG / 575 AB / 32 2B / 22 HR / 86 RBI / 75 BB / 134 K

JOHNSON -- .269 AVG / .396 OBP / .456 SLG / 529 AB / 36 2B / 21 HR / 81 RBI / 99 BB / 112 K

The similarities go beyond the numbers. Both play reliable, and sometimes excellent, defense. Johnson is 30; Kearns is 28. Both have laudable work ethics. Both approach their jobs with the sort of seriousness that could rightfully be described as "professional." If you're looking for an obvious way to break the tie between these guys, you'd probably want to look at their health. Though Johnson figures to be fine by spring training, his track record with injuries is far more profound than Kearns's. Kearns played in 161 games in 2007, 150 in 2006. Until last year, he hadn't been on the DL since 2004. Johnson, on the other hand, is one of the most fragile players in baseball history, with annual trips to the DL.

But here's the reason to favor Johnson. Though their career stats look similar, Kearns' recent productivity has declined appreciably. In a full, healthy season in 2007, he hit just 16 homers -- not what you'd want for a corner outfielder. His injury-plagued 2008 raised even more concerns. He hit seven home runs in 313 at bats, the poorest power numbers of his career. At a time when most players hit their prime, Kearns has backslided. Even if he's healthy, there is no legitimate way to know what you're going to get.

Johnson's productivity -- when healthy -- is much more of a sure thing. Even when he doesn't hit .300, his patience at the plate and his proclivity for walks makes him a valuable component in a lineup. He finished sixth on the team in walks in 2008, even though he had just 109 at bats. Though he batted just .220, his OBP (.415) and his SLG (.430) were comparable with his career averages. Furthermore, in his last full season, 2006, Johnson put up the best numbers of his career, homering 23 times, getting 77 RBI and hitting .290. There's plenty of reason to believe that he can do it again, if only his body lets him.

By Chico Harlan  |  November 25, 2008; 11:32 AM ET
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Simple stat why NJ much more valuable than AK.

Nick's last game was May 13th, he had 142 plate appearances.

It was not until August 23rd he was passed for most BB on the team (Willie Harris). True a factor of the myriad of injuries, but still!!

Posted by: VladiHondo | November 25, 2008 12:02 PM | Report abuse

In addition to the BB/OBP advantage, Nick's a southpaw, and we need more LHBs in the lineup.

Posted by: BobLHead | November 25, 2008 12:10 PM | Report abuse

I'm with Chico. If it actually comes down to a healthy Nick or a healthy Austin, it has to be Nick. I still would love to see a 3 way deal with the Tigers and Sox, with Willis or Robertson landing her, AK in Boston, and Lugo in Detroit, but I don't get the sense this is on the table. Maybe in the Spring when people show their '08 injuries have no lasting effect.

Speaking of Lastings - the reason his name comes up at all as a trade bait is that the Nats have strongly indicated (to Chico) a preference for Dukes in CF, and it looks like there are several corner OF candidates. Maybe if AK is benched or traded, the Nats will not do what they have said they prefer to do and will play Dukes in right. Or maybe they will say, "we can get our 4th OF 400 - 500 ABs by having him fill in for injured players and having Willingham play first a bit." But if they pick up the big bat people want, odds are its another corner OF or the real 1st baseman.

Milledge is far and away the most attractive trade bait among the position players for all the reasons people want him off the table AND because he will be squeezed for playing time. If he were able to learn CF, then he'd be terrific. Some other team is probably willing to try that. It is just really an arm issue, which would be a bigger issue in an OF corner. His range is fine for a CF, and as he learns to judge flies better, he'll be a plus there. If this team is unwilling to play him in CF, then he ahs to be on the block. If he, Nick, cash to pay for Nick, and a pitching prospect were packaged, that would (not might) get Adrian Gonzalez (or perhaps Peavy if he would agree).

While people put together fantasy line ups, how's this:

C - Flores
1b - A-Gon
2d - Hudson
SS - Guz
3d - FotF
LF - Willingham
CF - Dukes / Harris
RF - Kearns / Dukes

I could lose one of the corner OFs if Ibanez were signed in place of Hudson and go with Hernandez or a Harris / Belliard platoon to play 2d.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | November 25, 2008 12:12 PM | Report abuse

"If it actually comes down to a healthy Nick or a healthy Austin, it has to be Nick."


I thought about trying to come up with some snarky response, but I don't think it's even needed. I'll just let this statement hang.

Posted by: Section506 | November 25, 2008 12:18 PM | Report abuse


Try this game for giggles. Go to a Padres blog, sign in and propose the trade of Milledge plus a prospect you can name. Say you've heard that this trade was going to happen and you think it's a good idea, and watch the sparks fly.

Posted by: soundbloke | November 25, 2008 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Also, any talk of Johnson's value is ridiculous. He has no value because he is never going to give you more than a handful of games. He takes up spots on the roster at the start of the season, and then nothing. He seems like a great guy but relying on him can only hurt the team.

Posted by: soundbloke | November 25, 2008 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Sadly, the're both just names on a roster with little trade value until ST starts. Debating the relative merits of each player is a moot point until then.

Posted by: BinM | November 25, 2008 12:42 PM | Report abuse

I think the whole reason that Gonzalez is on the market (if he is on the market) is over cash flow and budget. So any trade with the Padres would have to deliver more in potential for the future than Gonzalez delivers today in the here and now. Milledge or Dukes could be part of the package, but there would have to 2-3 other quality players in the the mix for the deal to make sense to SD. That would mean Jordan Zimmermann and perhaps Marerro along with Milledge. Otherwise the Nats can't play.

Personally I have doubts about Gonzalez being on the market. I think that is a contengency plan if they can't get what they want for Peavy.

I think a more likely target might be Garrett Atkins with Colorado. They could move him to 1B. Or even more likely is a player like James Loney with the Dodgers. Neither has the power that Gonzalez or Teixeira have, but the Dodgers might be prepared to move Loney and he would be a good investment. He's a lefthanded batter who delivered 90 RBI for the Dodgers. They need middle infielders and pitching. They could sign Teixeira and trade Loney.

Posted by: natbisquit | November 25, 2008 12:46 PM | Report abuse

The whole question of Nick v. Austin presumes: 1) that Dukes will stay out of trouble, which is not guaranteed. (Was there ever an explanation given why he wasn't at the uniform unveiling, for instance?); 2) that Milledge will be a viable outfielder, either in center or right. I'm still not convinced of that.

I know this isn't going to be a popular opinion, but, assuming the roster stays as is (which is doubtful), I would play AK and Nick and bench Milledge.

1b NJ
2b Hernandez, I guess
ss Guzman
3b Zim
lf Willingham
cf Dukes
rf Kearns
c Flores

I think this lineup give the team the best chance to win. I don't think Milledge is a substantial upgrade over AK offensively, and I think AK has it all over Milledge as a defensive outfielder.

But I also think all this is moot because changes are coming.

Posted by: raymitten | November 25, 2008 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Good contrarian post, Raymitten.

Natbisquit, you might be right about the Gonzalez/Peavy link.

506, I knew it in a moment.

jcaTBNL, I like your lineup (with Hudson and A-Gon), except I just don't see Dukes in CF. I think he belongs in RF.

RosenRosen says the Twins are shopping Delmon Young ... uh-oh.

Posted by: BobLHead | November 25, 2008 1:09 PM | Report abuse

OT, but relevant to the Int'l scouting discussion:

Starring Scott Boras as Mr. Applegate.

Posted by: CEvansJr | November 25, 2008 1:28 PM | Report abuse

No way Boras has the grace and poise of Ray Walston.


Posted by: Section506 | November 25, 2008 1:44 PM | Report abuse

"Remarkably similar stats"?

Johnson has 30% more walks, 20% fewer Ks, an OPS that is 63 points higher. Even if you add the 24-BB differential back into his AB total, he still accomplishes comparable production in fewer ABs.

Not saying that I actually think he'll GET all of those ABs. Just that the assertion that they are "remarkably similar" is a joke.

The proof is in the answer to these two questions:

1) Who would you rather have up when you desperately need a baserunner to start a rally?

2) Who would you rather have up when you desperately need someone to drive said baserunners in?

Posted by: Aterio | November 25, 2008 1:48 PM | Report abuse

The Devil hisself doesn't have that kind of poise. And unless I miss my guess, he doesn't have Walston, either.

No way Boras has the grace and poise of Ray Walston.
Posted by: Section506 | November 25, 2008 1:44 PM

Posted by: CEvansJr | November 25, 2008 1:53 PM | Report abuse

reposting cuz I can.

I dunno, BobL. It takes a long time to fill a minor league system with credible talent. I don't think they have enough to start culling even this modest herd.
Keeping in mind, these C+s are also the Nats roster for July and August, when the acquired actual talent goes a-Weimi.
"[We] do have a fairly sizable pile of C+ prospects.
So, is it time to start packaging redundant assets with prospects in order to acquire some of the missing pieces? A leadoff-hitting, slick-fielding CF; a #2 hitting middle IF, a #4 hitting 1B, and 1-2 top of the rotation starters?"
Posted by: BobLHead | November 25, 2008 10:37 AM

Posted by: CEvansJr | November 25, 2008 1:50 PM

Posted by: CEvansJr | November 25, 2008 1:54 PM | Report abuse

"Also, any talk of Johnson's value is ridiculous. He has no value because he is never going to give you more than a handful of games."

We have assigned value to him...$5mil per year. Same with Dimitri. Now, if only we could sign Tex, then that would be $30mil tied to one position and just about all the lefty bats on the team.

Posted by: jctichen | November 25, 2008 1:54 PM | Report abuse

Bravo, CEvans. Turned a mediocre joke into meaningful wordplay.

Posted by: Section506 | November 25, 2008 1:56 PM | Report abuse

I was wondering that myself. Even with all the walks, and about the same HRs, Nick's slugging % is about 20 points higher, which is no mean trick. "Doubles are runs," as somebody used to say.
"Remarkably similar stats"?

Johnson has 30% more walks, 20% fewer Ks, an OPS that is 63 points higher. Even if you add the 24-BB differential back into his AB total, he still accomplishes comparable production in fewer ABs.

Posted by: Aterio | November 25, 2008 1:48 PM

Posted by: CEvansJr | November 25, 2008 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I don't think I've seen this mentioned (this is from BA):

Washington Nationals
Signed: RHP Preston Larrison, RHP Dan Leatherman, RHP Ryan Wagner, 1B Brad Eldred, OF Jemel Spearman

The 28-year-old Larrison is the pick to click in this group. A Tigers’ second-round selection in 2001, he’s pitched in 100 Triple-A games and racked up a solid 3.49 ERA and just 84 strikeouts to go with 57 walks in 134 innings. However, he’s given up just seven home runs in that time, as he’s got one of the better—if not the best—sinkers on the market. His groundout-to-airout ratios in the past two seasons: 2.7 (Buffalo, ‘08), 3.0 (Toledo, ‘08), 3.0 (Toledo, ‘07). Yes, the double play will always be in the back of opposing managers’ minds.

Posted by: BobLHead | November 25, 2008 2:20 PM | Report abuse

Larrison is a former Tigers prospect that never reached his middle-of-the-rotation upside; he's had some success coming out of the pen in AAA.

Eldred is a former Pirates first-base prospect; he's never hit a lick in the majors but he did whack 35 dingers with the ChiSox AAA affiliate last year (but with an ugly 144 Ks, leading to this Kingman-like line: .244/.305/.546).

Posted by: BobLHead | November 25, 2008 2:29 PM | Report abuse

For the record, the "pick to click" language on Larrison in my first post above is commentary from BA, not from me; mine is in the second post.

Posted by: BobLHead | November 25, 2008 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Another big difference between Johnson and Kearns is their swing. Nick has one of the smoothest in the game. And Kearns looks like he's all locked up. Perhaps the new hitting coach will help Austin. But for him to progress, that swing has to get better.

Posted by: AshburnVA | November 25, 2008 2:45 PM | Report abuse

If Ryan Wagner is healthy this year, he could have some real upside. He has always had a good arm, he's still young, and when he has used his preferred arm slot and motion he has had good control. His velocity was way down this summer, but if he his rehab continues perhaps he will be ok.

Posted by: natbisquit | November 25, 2008 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Is there any news on NJ? Is is swinging a bat. Barry did that nice feature on him last winter. Chico, even if it's by phone, could you find out for us? How does he feel about the Nats seemingly writing him off?

Posted by: nats24 | November 25, 2008 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Meet the new post, same as the old post (but with an update).

Posted by: BobLHead | November 25, 2008 5:20 PM | Report abuse

The news of Leatherman & Wagner re-signing with the orginization is good news in my books - it adds BP depth in the high minors. Larrison may help as well at AAA - Eldred & Spearman are placeholder bats at best until some of the kids move further up in the system.

Posted by: BinM | November 25, 2008 5:42 PM | Report abuse

soundbloke: I will not take up your challenge. I have not seen anything serious about Gonzalez being on the block in a month, and he's signed to a team favorable contract. Towers says he's not on the market, for what that is worth. He's an all star, so why trade?

I still believe 2 years of Lastings at minimum wage is quite a bargaining chip, that our top arms in the minors are valuable, and that Nick with contract paid off ($5 million cash) would be an attractive package, but, as was said about Moe Greene, my eyes are getting too big.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | November 25, 2008 6:54 PM | Report abuse

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