Thursday, February 12, 2009

Nick Johnson: He Walked, But His Career Never Got Running

Few players in this generation have been more highly touted and yet more snake bitten than Nick Johnson, who just finished another injury plagued season. And now he has once again lost his job as the Nationals' first baseman as he will be replaced by Adam Dunn. Dunn signed a two year contract today worth $20 million to play first base for the Nationals and all but ended Johnson's career with the team. Time will tell if another club will take one more chance on the now 30 year old player.

At one time, Johnson was the best prospect in the Yankees organization. He was the heir apparent to Mattingly and then Tino Martinez. He was drafted by the Yankees in the third round of the 1996 draft and promptly tore up the minor leagues. He batted .317 for the Yankees' Tampa affiliate in 1998 with a 1.040 OPS. The following year, he batted .345 with a 1.073 OPS and walked 123 times for the Norwich Navigators (don't you love minor league team names?).

He made his major league debut in 2001 and fared rather poorly in 61 at bats. But he was still regarded as one of the top prospects in the country. The Yankees brought him to the majors in 2002 for good and he didn't bat that well, but still ended up with an OBP of .347 while displaying a good glove at first.

2003 is when the problems really started to occur. He had been injured from time to time in his first two years but in 2003, he got off to a great start but a stress fracture in his wrist was diagnosed and he went on the disabled list from May 15 to July. He still managed 324 at bats with a .284 average and a .422 OBP.

The Yankees lost patience with his missed time and he was included with Juan Rivera and Randy Choate in a trade with the then Montreal Expos for Javier Vazquez (who frustrated the Yankees for other reasons). Going from the most exciting venue in sports to the tomb that was Montreal had to be a drag for him but the worst was yet to come.

In Johnson's first year with Montreal, he didn't get into his first game until May 28 because of a back problem. When he finally did play, he was not very good and struggled to bat .251 and then he went to field a ground ball. The ball took a funny hop and hit him in the face and shattered his cheekbone. The Expos were averaging less than 5,000 fans a game which altered an old line: "If an Expo falls with an injury and nobody sees it, was it really an injury?"

The Expos moved to Washington and became the Nationals in 2005 and Johnson and the team got a new start. Indeed, Johnson played in most of the Nationals' games in 2005 and 2006 and performed very well. He played 288 games in those two years and averaged a combined .289 with a .418 On Base Percentage with 81 doubles, 36 homers and 151 runs driven in while scoring 166 more. Most impressively, he walked 190 times.

Then disaster struck again. On September 23, 2006, his season almost over, he went to catch a pop up and collided with Austin Kearns. In a horrible accident, his femur was severed and he needed an operation to repair the damage. The break caused him to miss the entire 2007 season.

He was finally ready to resume his career and was ready in Spring Training of 2008, but he tore a ligament in his wrist and had surgery to repair the problem on May 15 (that date again) and only managed 109 at bats the entire season.

The Nationals, like the Yankees before, have lost patience and will go with Dunn. A trade seems the only possibility for Johnson. And so a player with all that promise managed only 102 games a season for six seasons at his physical peak. At the age of 30, is it too late to accomplish what we've only seen in glimpses to this point?

Perhaps he can go to the Dodgers and be reunited with his uncle, Larry Bowa and his former manager, Joe Torre. Perhaps some other team will take a chance on a good fielding, walking machine, who just happened to need to take that machine a lot of times to the shop. It's too bad. He sure knew how to take a walk. He just couldn't keep the motor running long enough.

1 comment:

Josh Borenstein said...

Lost in the shuffle because he couldn't stay healthy. A pity. But at 30 there's still time to turn it around. IF he can stay healthy.