This Indians-Braves trade was about money. Nobody on either side has any genuine interest in Chris Johnson, Michael Bourn or Nick Swisher—at least not at their current contract values.
But, for better or worse, the Indians are stuck with Johnson through the 2017 season.
So what can we expect from Johnson?
Let’s start with the worst news first: he’s a terrible third baseman.
Over the past two seasons Johnson has earned a -15 DRS grade at third base. For those not familiar with Defensive Run Saved, that means he’s cost his team approximately 15 runs compared to the average third baseman.
Over the course of his career, Johnson’s DRS is an unthinkably horrific -62, the fourth worst grade across all positions since 2009.
As bad as you think Lonnie Chisenhall has been at third, Johnson is dramatically worse. For comparison, Chisenhall has cost the Indians 7 runs at third base over the past two seasons. Meanwhile, Giovanny Urshela is already a +1 in just over 400 innings at third base.
Due to the defensive issues, unless he dramatically boosts the offense, it’s hard to imagine Johnson receiving any meaningful playing time on a field with weak links at nearly every other defensive position.
So what are the odds he does bring an upgrade to the offense?
Well, what if I told you the Indians just acquired a career .300 hitter, who’s batting .323 this year?
You’re probably confused, because every media outlet in Cleveland has already reported Johnson’s .235 average. It’s true, he’s batting .235 and lost his starting spot in Atlanta.
In Cleveland, however, Johnson doesn’t have a starting spot to lose. There’s no reason for Francona to move Urshela from his spot at third (especially giving Johnson’s defensive woes). And his total numbers are irrelevant to his role in Cleveland.
The Indians have massive holes in the lineup against left-handed pitching, which is where Johnson fits perfectly.
Despite his overall struggles, Johnson is batting .323 against lefties this season and .313 in his career.
As Johnson’s career numbers have dropped, his performance against lefties has actually improved. Over the past three seasons he’s batting .375 against lefties, with a .408 OBP and a .919 OPS.
Based on these numbers, Johnson will likely become their starting DH against left-handed pitching and serve as a pinch-hitter the rest of the time, while getting an occasional spot start at third.
The Indians might not be excited about paying Johnson like an above-average starter just to be a platoon player. But they’re stuck with him, and there’s actually some reason to think he improves the offense in this limited role.
By no means does this make the Indians a contender, but it’s an upgrade.
On a related note… I broke down the numbers to the contract situation. Here’s how it shakes out.