Nick Johnson hits a solo home run against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium on May 5, 2010. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Career Profile: Nick Johnson
Per reader request, here is a Career Profile for Nick Johnson.
Nick Johnson was drafted by the New York Yankees in the third round in 1996, from high school in Sacramento, California. A nephew of former major league shortstop and manager Larry Bowa, Johnson hit .287/.422/.408 in rookie ball, with 30 walks and 35 strikeouts in 157 at-bats. Scouts loved his first base defense and his strike zone judgment, but there were doubts about how his power would develop. I didn't write about many rookie ball players back in the days of the old STATS book, but a similar player now would likely get a Grade C+ from me.
Moved up to Greensboro in the Sally League for 1997, Johnson hit .273/.398/.441 with 16 homers, 76 walks, and 99 strikeouts in 433 at-bats. He also stole 16 bases in 19 attempts. Scouts continued to praise his glove, and I liked the strike zone judgment. I gave him a Grade B- in the 1998 book, writing that "I think he will be a solid player, and possibly much more."
Johnson missed the first six weeks of the 1998 season following shoulder surgery, but he was terrific once he got on the field, hitting .317/.466/.538 with 68 walks in 303 at-bats for Tampa in the Florida State League. The plate discipline was terrific, the power was developing, and he was gaining a reputation for excellent "intangibles" as well. I gave him a Grade A- in the '99 book, and ranked him as the Number Five hitting prospect in baseball, projecting that he would be ready to replace Tino Martinez as the Yankees first baseman in 2001.
Promoted to Double-A for '99, Johnson had an outstanding season for Norwich, hitting .345/.525/.548 with 123 walks in 420 at-bats. He hit just 14 homers, but led the Eastern League in OPS, batting average, OBP, and runs scored with 114. He made 20 errors, but scouts were projecting his defense to be future Gold Glove quality due to his range. I wrote "aside from the errors, I see no weaknesses in his game" and gave him a Grade A, ranked as the Number Four hitting prospect (behind Corey Patterson, Pat Burrell, and Vernon Wells).
2000 was a disaster: he missed the entire season with a wrist injury that resisted accurate diagnosis but kept him off the field. Medical reports predicted a return to full health for 2001, but wrist injuries often screw up power even after they are healed. Cautious as a result, I reduced his rating to a Grade B+ and had him ranked at Number 14 as a hitter, noting that I expected he would "continue to show superb on-base ability" but that the injury cut harm his development otherwise.
Sent to Triple-A Columbus for '01, Johnson hit .256/.407/.462 with 18 homers and 81 walks in 359 at-bats. He got into 23 games for the Yankees and hit just .194/.308/.313. He continued to control the strike zone very well and his production was solid (+19 percent OPS) at Columbus despite the disappointing batting average. The Yankees seemed somewhat uncertain and brought in Jason Giambi for '02. I wrote that I remained confident in Johnson, and that "if the Yankees let him play, he'll hit." I gave him a Grade A- and had him at Number Six on my hitting list.
Johnson got into 129 games for the Yankees in '02 (at age 23), hitting .243/.347/.402 with 15 homers. This wasn't as much as expected, but he improved (while fighting injuries) in 2003 with a .284/.422/.472 mark. He was traded to the Expos for 2004 and had more injury problems. You know the profile of his career from here.
Johnson was particularly effective for the Nationals in 2005 (.289/.408/.479, OPS+137, 4.7 WAR) and 2006 (.290/.428/.520, OPS+149, WAR 5.4), but his inability to avoid injuries has been the biggest factor in his career. His career line is now .270/.401/.443, OPS+ 124, WAR 17.5.
Sim Scores through age 31: Rico Brogna, Lyle Overbay, Sid Bream, Walt Dropo, Gordy Coleman, Nick Etten, Kevin Young, Greg Colbrunn, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Bernie Carbo. A healthy Johnson is a better player than most of those guys.
When healthy, Nick Johnson is exactly the type of player that his minor league career predicted he would be, and in that sense he isn't a disappointment. I don't regard it as a mistake to have ranked him so highly. It's just unfortunate that his body hasn't let him sustain his peak success.