Much like building an expensive bullpen, buying a designated hitter is a non-issue for teams outside of legitimate competitive status. The bad news is that the DH position is one of the few spots the Rays could stand to upgrade. The good news is that the cost will be held down by a swamped market. The even better news is that the cost might be further decreased by questions in the player’s history.
As much as that sounds like a teaser for Milton Bradley, it’s not. Instead, the answer at 1B/DH could come once again from the New York Yankees’ system. The Rays’ best and brightest first basemen have spent various amounts of time with the Yankees. Carlos Pena and Fred McGriff in the minors, Tino Martinez in the majors, and even Travis Lee in the majors – although that was in between Tampa Bay stints. The newest member of that family might be Nick Johnson.
Johnson, 32, barely played this season; amassing fewer than 100 plate appearances for the first time in his career since becoming a regular in 2002. He’s recorded more than 400 plate appearances in five of the eight seasons since then, suggesting that while his durability is a concern, it’s not a situation akin to Eric Chavez. When Johnson plays, his game is simply to get on base. His career on-base percentage is .401 (through 3,200 plate appearances and various time in the American and National Leagues) and he may or may not break the 100 career home runs mark next season.
One of the most obvious playing concerns with Johnson is how his bat plays with southpaws. As the playoffs demonstrated, the Rays are already loaded against righties, but Johnson belongs in the lineup versus lefties too. He will not hit for much pop against them, he will however reach base. His career low OBP against lefties is .354 (2008) which is only the second season in his career in which that split has dipped below .390. Seriously. He really does manage to get on base 39% or more of the time against lefties.
There are some reasons against Johnson. Namely Carlos Pena and Dan Johnson – the latter comes with the same skill set, a lower price tag, and a reduced risk of injury. That’s without mentioning Leslie Anderson and Jose Julio Ruiz. The injury concerns might be too much to gamble with given the lushness of the market as well. But if the Rays want a cheap alternative to take Pena’s place, Johnson fits the bill.