Yesterday, the Yankees came to an agreement on a one-year deal with an injury-prone position player turned designated hitter. No, they didn't steal Hideki Matsui Dodgers-Furcal style. Rather, they added another offensive force to their lineup in the form of OBP machine Nick Johnson, coming to an agreement to bring the former Yankee prospect back to the Bronx on for a reported $5.5M.
While the move would initially seem to be a downgrade, given that Matsui showed a surge of power last season, it appears that the Yankees have further fortified an already terrifying lineup by adding one of the best on-base guys of the past decade, a guy with a career OBP of .402. Johnson, 31, was traded to the Expos in the deal that sent Javier Vazquez to New York before the 2004 season, and became one of the best first baseman in the game after the team moved to Washington for the 2005 season. Considering his offensive upside, youth, and cheaper price tag, it appears that the Yankees may have actually have been better off when Matsui signed with Los Angeles.Injury questions have always been the issue with Johnson, but during the 2005 and 2006 seasons he managed to stay healthy for a total of 278 games, posting 1175 plate appearances. He posted wRC+ marks of 139 and 152, respectively, while playing plus defense at first base. The marks made him a star-level player, as he posted WARs of 4.6 in 2005 and 5.3 in 2006.
In 2007, the injury bug returned and he missed the entire 2007 season while playing only 38 games in 2008. But in 2009 he returned to post 574 plate appearances, posting a .426 OBP and a 130 wRC+. His power showed a major dip, his ISO dropped from .230 in 2006 to .114 in 2009, but that was likely partially a function of a low 6.2% HR/FB. He showed his regular patience at the plate, walking in nearly 18% of his plate appearances. UZR indicates that he's not quite the defender he once was, and the Fan's Scouting Reports seem to agree.
This makes for a good situation in New York, where Johnson should be able to stay healthier as he won't have to play the field, and the Yankees just landed another impact bat for a lineup that's loaded with them. Johnson is likely to see a slight increase in his power production next season (the new Yankee Staidium certainly shouldn't hurt) as he gets fully healthy and his numbers regress back to the mean, making him one of the better hitters in the game, and a solidly above average designated hitter if he can stay healthy.
While Matsui's power surge from 2009 was shocking not a function of the new Yankee Stadium (.462 SLG at home, .567 away), he seems likely for some regression as his 17.0% HR/FB ratio was unusually high, and hitters generally don't show major increases in power when they're 35, at least not since the end of the supposed Steroid Era.
Considering that Johnson is likely to be the better hitter next season, his projections are superior than Matsui's essentially across the board, it appears that the Yankees have made another great move, landing another high-upside hitter for just $5.5M, less than Matsui has reportedly agreed to go to the Angels for. It's the kind of financial hit that the Yankees can take if he gets hurt, and realistically if he's not playing the field then it wouldn't be surprising to see him get a similar number of plate appearances as last season.
With the additions that the Yankees have made this offseason, I'm not sure if there's a better offense in baseball. I wonder how pitchers feel about going against a lineup of Granderson, Jeter, Teixeira, Rodriguez, Cano, Posada, Johnson, Swisher and Cabrera/Gardner.