The Braves’ problem at third base

Chris Johnson replaced Chipper Jones at third base for the Braves last year and then played something like him, batting .321, slugging .457 and helping the Braves to 96 wins and a division title.

Johnson was good enough that no one should have paid attention to whatever it was the newly retired Chipper was tweeting.

The Braves committed to Johnson as surely as if they had dropped to one knee. Over the course of a year, they rid themselves of Juan Francisco, wrote Johnson into the cleanup spot and spent $23.5 million on a player who’s never had more than 31 walks or 15 home runs in a season.

A year later, Johnson is playing a lot more like the final days of Terry Pendleton, only not as good as the .252/.280/.398 that got TP moved.

The Braves are in the bottom third in MLB of almost every major offensive category — 29th in runs scored, 25th in OPS (.674) and average (.235), 28th in on-base percentage (.296) — and Johnson is a major reason why. (Even the categories the Braves are not low in — 13th in home runs and 19th in slugging — have little to do with Johnson, given his one home run and .338 non-slugging percentage).

Johnson is batting .261 after an 0-for-5 Monday (he’s 0 for his last 15), and that’s the best of his contributions. The rest of his stat line is as empty as Chip Caray’s commentary: a .287 on-base percentage, five walks and 41 strikeouts, 10 extra-base hits, a steal and a .624 OPS. Among the 11 third basemen who play regularly in the NL, Johnson is ninth in OPS and last in WAR (-0.4); only old Braves friend Martin Prado is about as bad.

The Braves are in first place because they’ve done well to fix a starting rotation which lost two starters before the season and because the Nationals are a perfect representation of their home city — just arrogant enough to think problems (say Denard Span) will fix themselves or go away.

But the Braves aren’t farther ahead because they’re spending more than $38 million on three players — Johnson, Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton — hitting a combined .219 with six homers, 129 strikeouts and OPSes of .624, .611 and .501 in 410 combined at-bats. Those are hard numbers to work up a tomahawk chant for.

It makes you wonder what the Braves were thinking when they so quickly extended and raised Johnson’s contract early this season. Johnson’s 2013, at age 28, was better than anything he had ever done: his .321 average was 34 points above his career mark of .287, his .358 on-base percentage was 34 points better than his career’s and his .815 OPS was 61 points better than his .754 career.

There’s a reason the NCAA asks for proof when recruits outperform on college test scores.

And while Johnson’s 2013 was good by his standards and the Braves’ expectations, it wasn’t compared to the rest of the league. Though his OPS was second among regular third basemen, his WAR was just 2.0 and 11th in the NL, which tells you all you need to know about what the metrics think of his defense. Johnson’s defensive WAR was -0.7, the sixth straight season he’s been a negative defensively (he’s at -0.1 currently on his way to a seventh).

Johnson’s contract was modest (three years, $23.5 million guaranteed) but more than a player who has struck out five times for every walk in his career (483-97) warranted.

Originally, the Braves planned to platoon Johnson last year with Francisco, which seemed a better idea than the Dale Murphy for the Hall of Fame campaign. But Johnson started well and Francisco didn’t, and then the latter hurt an ankle. Johnson became the everyday third baseman and who needs a platoon third baseman when there’s no platoon? Because Johnson’s good times would never end, right?.

Out of options, Francisco was designated and dealt for minor-league pitcher Thomas Keeling. Braves GM Frank Wren said, “He’s a guy you could see pitching up here in a couple years.” Maybe he meant Francisco. Keeling and his 6.17 career ERA were released this spring (Keeling was an 18th-round draft pick who started his professional career by walking 23 and allowing 18 earned runs in his first 7.2 innings of Rookie League. That’s a 21.13 ERA, if you’re not doing the math. He never got much better.)

As for the player Keeling was traded for, Francisco performed poorly as a Brewer (though he out homered Johnson) but was released this spring. The Blue Jays signed him, and in 89 at-bats he’s hit eight homers and slugged .629. Like Johnson, he strikes out a lot and is a mediocre defender, but he’s three years younger, far more powerful and a few million dollars cheaper. His 1.002 OPS stands to fall by a couple hundred points this summer, but he’s a decent bet to outperform Johnson.

The Braves forgot the first rule of platooning last year when they sent Francisco away — you do it when neither player is good enough to use one roster spot for 600 at-bats. Two months of Johnson as a Brave shouldn’t have overridden five years of so-so performance.

The Braves were right the first time. Cut in haste, repent in dollars.

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