Reportedly signed OF-R Austin Jackson to a one-year contract worth $5 million. [3/5]
After being linked to nearly every team in baseball this offseason, Jackson has finally found a place to hang his hat. The outfield market was a bit of a wonky place, with Yoenis Cespedes only getting a three-year contract, Justin Upton signing late, and the supply of available outfielders seeming to overwhelm the demand, even as several teams flashed holes. The White Sox were one of those teams with a hole, one that’s now been plugged at a bargain rate.
After a couple of stellar seasons with the Tigers, Jackson saw his power completely fade after a mid-season trade to the Mariners back in 2014. A .031 ISO does no man any favors, especially while swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone and making less contact. Fortunately, the offense rebounded a bit last year (.254 True Average), even as his formerly-impressive speed and defense looks like it has diminished to average or a little worse. Still, he’s a capable middle-outfielder, and PECOTA’s projection pegs him at about 1.1 WARP thanks to all-round competency. Jackson has found a way to do everything just well enough to stay relevant, and if any of those skills play up a little, he could potentially move from “good enough option” to just plain good. The 70th percentile projection for PECOTA moves Jackson up to 1.8 WARP, and that doesn’t account for the possibility that his defense could grade out as average–keep in mind that he earned 5.3 FRAA last year.
With this signing, Adam Eaton will likely move to a corner, and the White Sox suddenly have a team without gaping holes … something you couldn’t say about them in 2015. Last year, their infield looked like Swiss cheese and they gave 601 plate appearances to Avisail Garcia and his 0.4 WARP. Now, even though Jackson may no longer be a plus hitter, his defense should contribute to a more solid overall ballclub. Nothing is certain in baseball, particularly in the AL Central, but PECOTA had already pegged the Sox as the second-place team in the division, and adding Jackson only helps their cause.
It’s a bit of a wonder that A-Jax wanted to stick around in Chicago even after his less-than-stellar performance with the Cubs at the end of last season and an 0-for-playoffs run. Nevertheless, he should be a substantial upgrade for the White Sox, who went big this offseason adding Todd Frazier, Brett Lawrie, Mat Latos, and Jimmy Rollins. If you squint, adding Jackson to the list makes a picture appear like one of those old Magic Eye books: each one of those players qualified as a disappointment at some point. Latos, Lawrie, and Rollins all had down seasons, and Frazier’s performance fell off in the second half. But Jackson’s disappointment stretches back to 2014, during a lost season between Detroit and Seattle. Unlike the others, 2015 was a bit of a quiet bounceback. Maybe he’ll be the leading indicator, with the rest of Chicago’s acquisitions following him to revivals in 2016. Maybe not. But unlike his counterparts, also Jackson needs to do in order for his deal to be counted a success is get close to repeating last season’s performance. That’s why so many teams were linked to this outfielder, and that’s why the White Sox made a terrific choice in adding him to their roster.
Signed RHP/1B-L Dan Johnson to a minor-league contract [3/5]
We are all ordinary, seldom touched by the spark of greatness. That’s why my favorite sports stories are the ones where the dull and the exceptional intersect. From the 1969 Miracle Mets rising from the National League gutter, to Bill Mazeroski’s homer in 1960 and the wrecked Kirk Gibson punching one out in 1988, these are the moments that connect with so many of us. But even these moments involved players with more than just a spark of exceptional talent. Johnson, later known as “The Great Pumpkin,” was never great until his moment of ascension. He appeared from nowhere to push back the Boston Red Sox and lift up the Tampa Bay Rays, disappearing from the spotlight immediately after. Then, against incredible odds, he did it a second time.
It was 2008, before the Rays truly became the Rays. Instead of being the poster team for post-Beane sabermetric, they were the poster team for jokes about inadequacy. I used to talk to my grandfather in Seminole about the team, and our conversations weren’t much more than hemming and hawing about a future we thought would never arrive in coastal Florida. Johnson had washed out as a regular first baseman with the A’s as one of the Moneyball hitters in vogue at the time: a little pop and an eye for the free pass. He may have signed to play in Tampa, but he spent most of the season in Durham, and was called up just in time to hit a pinch-hit blast to send the Rays’ September 9 tilt against Boston into extras. Eventually Tampa broke through, won the game, and kept the Sox from returning to the division lead for the rest of the season. For a Quad-A hitter with little major league success, this could have been the moment that defined a career. It wasn’t.
After spending a season in Yokohama across the Pacific, he returned to Tampa to do what he did best: hit at Durham (he won the International League MVP that season), disappoint in the big leagues (.266 True Average over 140 plate appearances), and find a way to distress the Red Sox (with a timely 10th-inning walkoff homer on August 28). Of course 2011 projected to be more of the same, with Johnson on standby as the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency corner option stashed in Durham. He did a nice job of that, spending most of the season in the minors defacing Triple-A baseballs and grinding away for short stints at the big league level. Then he was asked to save the Rays’ season, making a pinch-hit appearance with the team down to their last out on Wild Card Wednesday. It was Game 162 of the regular season, with the Rays and the Red Sox tied for the Wild Card. Johnson came to bat against the New York Yankees with two outs in the ninth inning. Eventually he was worn down to his final strike, but he miraculously took Cory Wade yard to tie the game, send it to extras and–after a heroic Evan Longoria dinger in extras–vanquish the Sox’s playoff hopes yet again. Dan Johnson was, once again, a hero.
Though he should drink for free at every bar in St. Petersburg and watch his back in Massachusetts, Johnson’s feats of long-ball heroism could at times also be outsized reminders of what he could not do regularly: hit well enough to keep a regular job in the majors. Despite winning MVP awards in both the International League (2010) and the Pacific Coast League (2004), his total big league OBP of .335 and slugging percentage of .405 hardly hinted at the power-and-patience potential that could have made him a productive long-term option at first base for somebody. After his time with the Rays, he floated around the bigs, never really sticking, and for good enough reason. So, if the story was that the 36-year-old Johnson–who was unremarkable in stints in Louisville and Memphis last year–was returning to the Rays to provide DH depth at Durham, this story perhaps would not have rated the full retrospective treatment I’ve just provided.
Improbably, the legend of Dan Johnson now gets even stranger. Over the past several years, Johnson has been learning the craft of the knuckleball, and he’ll attempt to make the conversion from first baseman to pitcher this spring. The Rays are leveraging former knuckler Charlie Haeger to coach up pitchers trying to refine the elusive pitch, and that brings Johnson back to the organization that brought him his greatest moments. The odds are long, and Johnson has little to no chance to do the next great, unimaginable thing: return to the majors a pitcher. But never you mind. We are all Linus, waiting for the Great Pumpkin to rise again, though the odds may be long. We never believed in Dan Johnson before, except in the furthest recesses of our hearts. He was no Kirk Gibson, no Tom Seaver, no one worthy of the impossible dream.
Now? We should know by now the folly of counting Dan Johnson out just yet. He’s proven full of magic before, perhaps we’ll even see it again.
Signed UT-R Ryan Raburn to a minor-league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. [3/5]
If you believe in up-year, down-year patterns, you should do two things. The first is to put your life savings on the Giants to win the World Series this season, and the second is to short any Raburn stock you own. His year-over-year batting line has been remarkable in its fits and sways; over the last four seasons, Raburn has made between 201 and 277 plate appearances. His True Average in each of those seasons was .175 (2012), .327 (2013), .198 (2014), and .320 (2015). If this pattern holds, the lefty-masher will show up in Colorado and promptly put up a season that would even make this low-risk deal seem like a poor investment.
Raburn will make $1.5 million if he makes the big-league roster … and I think he’ll pull that trick off. The Rockies can use another right-handed bat off the bench with an all-lefty outfield. Of course, outfield defense matters more in Colorado more than in other parks, and that’s going to be a problem for Raburn. Going from Gerardo Parra or even Carlos Gonzalez to Ryan Raburn in the outfield is going to sting–Raburn is a complete disaster in the field. Metrics like FRAA don’t tell the whole story–he’s hardly played enough in the field recently to build a big sample–but the occasional diving grab covers up the fact that his range is not good and his arm is … let’s just go with “erratic.”
He’s certainly no Brandon Barnes in the outfield, which is fine, because he’s certainly no Brandon Barnes in the batter’s box either. And if you believe that the arbitrary up-and-down nature of his recent seasonal batting will stick just because the year ends with an even number, I have a box of 1990 Donruss baseball cards to sell you. Sure, it’s fair to expect Raburn to regress more towards his career .262 True Average, but the real key was Cleveland’s complete resistance to Raburn facing off against right-handed hitters: he had just 25 plate appearances against them during all of last season. Limiting his attempts against righties is the real way to maximize his effectiveness.
Between Raburn and Mark Reynolds, the Rockies threaten to roll out two of the worst fielders in baseball as their right-handed bench bats. Fortunately, Raburn’s also likely to be a pretty decent hitter so long as Walt Weiss only rolls him out against left-handed pitchers, and somebody pushes the wall calendar in the team clubhouse ahead to 2017.
Signed LHP Christian Friedrich to a minor-league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. [3/4]
With a career 5.81 ERA in the major leagues, I can see how you might be skeptical that Friedrich can find a way to succeed during his age-28 season. His fastball hasn’t improved considerably from when he was a starting pitcher back in 2012–the last time he was considered a real prospect–despite a dip into the bullpen. For a hot minute at the end of 2014, he flashed a slider that could have been special, but after spending the whole 2015 season in the Colorado bullpen, he wasn’t able to replicate that pitch’s effectiveness. His strikeout rate went back to being mediocre, dropping from 24.6 percent in the short burst of 2014 to 16.7 percent over the long haul of this past year. Unless he finds a way to recapture that magic, he’s less a sleeper ‘pen arm and more of a waking nightmare.
Finally escaping the Colorado pitching hellscape—I could be referring to the light air of Coors Field or the ineffective pitcher development system, pick whichever you like–and moving to San Diego could be sweet solace. Even more than moving to PetCo’s comfortable confines, Friedrich needs to avoid right-handed hitters entirely. Last season, he roughly split plate appearances between both types of batters, with 29 innings pitched against each. That should never happen again, as his walk rate spikes against righties and he allowed a .433 OBP and .533 slugging percentage to those players. If everyone hits like Joey Votto against Friedrich again, it won’t matter if he plays for the Rockies or the Padres because the parks he’ll be pitching in will be in Double-A.
The Padres are desperate for left-handed relief help, which is both great for Friedrich–there’s a chance!–but also terrifying in the amount of competition he must face. There’s former teammate Drew Pomeranz tentatively slotted in as the primary lefty in the ‘pen, with Matt Thornton and 40-man roster-ees Buddy Baumann, Ryan Buchter, and Jose Torres also in the fold. There’s the potential that Friedrich could be a useful bullpen piece this season, and finally clip his ERA below 5.00. Then again … if potential were everything, we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all.