Trade Analysis: Nick Johnson to the Marlins

As reported earlier by many sources, the Marlins have acquired Nick Johnson from the Washington Nationals for Double-A lefty Aaron Thompson. With our awesome projection analysis powers and the Trade Value Calculator, we can analyze the dollar worth of this trade. But I’ll go a step beyond that and look at the implications this move has for the Marlins chances at a playoff birth.

Offensive Value:

Obviously, the side of the playing field from which the Marlins gain the most value from acquiring Johnson is the offensive side. At the plate, Johnson is far superior than the player he is replacing, the offensive black hole that is Emilio Bonifacio. I’m glad that the Marlins staff finally recognized that Bonifacio is hurting the ballclub with his bat and needed to be replaced. It may be too little too late in terms of making the playoffs (we’ll get to that later), but it’s a step in the right direction for the organization for the rest of the season.

ZiPS has Johnson projected as a .379 wOBA hitter the rest of the season, but this may be a bit optimistic. Throughout the season Johnson has shown a distinct loss of power; currently he holds an OBP higher than his SLG. This isn’t particularly a problem, as the Marlins do have plenty of power, but it does diminish the potential of him slugging .441 off of a .161 ISO the remainder of the season. ZiPS also has his BABIP dropping from a high .341 so far this season to a more modest .319 the rest of the way, which I believe is fair. I’d say it’s more likely he remains at the pace that he’s at so far this season, but let’s use a midway approximation of .371 wOBA the rest of the way. Let’s say Johnson gets through another 180 PA, giving him just over 600 PA for the season, which is an optimistic expectation given Johnson’s well-known health issues. Calculating that over Bonifacio’s ZiPS .288 wOBA projection over the remainder of the season, you get a value of 13 runs above Bonifacio’s worth over the course of the rest of the year.

Defensive Value

The offensive value, even for such a short period of time, is great. That’s over a win above replacement just with Johnson’s bat in the order over Bonifacio. But of course, offense isn’t the only thing that we need to evaluate. Johnson’s acquisition forces current Marlins first baseman Jorge Cantu over to third base, the position he occupied last season. Unfortunately, Cantu was horrendous in his time at third base, amassing -7.3 runs in 1066 innings and 123 games last season at the position, a UZR/150 of 9.1. Giving Cantu some regression in the department, I think it would be fair to rate him at -8/150 defensive games at the position. If we take that rate and apply it to the remaining 55 games (assuming some rest for Cantu), he’d be worth about three runs below average over the remainder of the season. Comparing this to Bonifacio’s performance and giving Boni credit for a -4/150 games, we’d lose about 1.5 runs switching Cantu for Bonifacio at third.

But that itself doesn’t take into account Johnson’s defense. In the past, Johnson has been a Gold Glove-caliber defensive player at first base, but this season it’s been a rough stretch based on UZR; Johnson’s been worth -6.4 runs at first base so far this season. Giving Johnson some regression based on his previous years at first by first halving the production he had with the glove in the years prior to his two full seasons with the Nationals then using a standard 8/4/2/1 regression (I went back far enough to get a 32 multiplier in there for his current season), you’d expect a value of 0.4 runs above average over the course of 150 games. Given this regression, a fair one given his previous value with the glove but one that doesn’t seem to agree with his current year performance in terms of scouting and metrics, Johnson would be just around neutral on UZR. With Cantu having not played a significant amount of first base, it’s difficult to weight his values as they stand, but I think giving him a neutral score probably agrees with the “eye test” for Cantu at first base. This makes no significant difference over the remainder of the season.

Let’s tally up the final value:

13 run offense – 1.5 runs defense = +10.5 runs or +1.05 wins, worth $4.5M

This of course assumes that the Marlins don’t plan on resigning Johnson. Since Johnson’s contract is paid for by the Nats this season, that theoretical value is all profit. Also, since Johnson doesn’t project as a Type B free agent, we aren’t likely to receive any draft picks from him walking. All in all, his acquisition yielded $4.5M of surplus value.

Now, a quick rundown of what we gave up. Thompson had lost a lot of ground as a player of worth in the Marlins’ organization. What was once a heralded draft class including Chris Volstad, Brett Sinkbeil, and Thompson headlining the pitching, only Volstad now remains as a viable player for the major league level. John Sickels rated Thompson in the preseason as a C+ prospect, which according to Victor Wang’s research is worth $2.1M given his age and level. This yields the Marlins a net surplus of $2.4M.

That looks like a good deal right? Well, it would be, if the Marlins figured that +1 WAR over the course of the season. Unfortunately, according to vivaelpujols’ Playoff Odds calculations, the addition of a +1 WAR player to the Marlins would yield only a 2% increase in the playoff odds. I’d say this underestimates the Marlins slightly, but not by much given their status as an overachieving team. The Marlins have a negative run differential and have a theoretical Pythagenpat expectation, based on their batting, pitching, and fielding runs above/below average, of .462. This is a rough approximation of third-order win percentage for the Marlins, and a poor one at that. The odds the Marlins make the playoffs are slim, and perhaps the potential worth of Thompson should have more than outweighed the addition of Johnson for the stretch run, given that it would not improve the Marlins odds anytime other than this season. Sure, it makes the Fish better by a good margin, but it may not be enough for the playoffs without significant improvement from the rest of the team, which I think is far harder to achieve over the course of 50+ games.

That being said, as a fan, it’s hard not to like the deal. Thompson had theoretical value, but had fallen so low in most scouts’ eyes that he essentially only had worth to the team, if that. His dealing was like dealing little to nothing qualitatively, and the addition of Johnson to a team that, despite its true talent level, is still in the playoff hunt, is hard to ignore. The Marlins have a long, uphill climb left, but crazier things have happened I suppose, and as a fan you just can’t give up hope, especially since the move’s already been made. Let’s ride the storm out.

Tags: Brett Sinkbeil Chris Volstad Emilio Bonifacio Jorge Cantu Miami Marlins Nick Johnson Washington Nationals

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