Braves GM Wren: Chris Johnson's 3-year extension fits franchise's mold
May 2, 2014 at 7:36p ET
ATLANTA -- On the Atlanta Braves' recent road trip to New York City, Chris Johnson was called into Jim Murray's office at Excel Sports Management. The third baseman and his agent needed to talk about the future.
A few weeks down the road, Johnson sat on stage with Braves general manager Frank Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez, the ink on his new three-year contract extension worth $23.5 million (plus a $10 million team option for 2018) still drying, publicly embracing the idea of playing for his favorite childhood team for the foreseeable future. Murray may have been sitting on the extension talks since he called Atlanta's front office and opened up discussions with Wren around Opening Day, but his client, who enjoyed a career year in 2013, was not going to complain about good news.
"When there was something to talk about, he brought it to my attention," Johnson said of Murray. "It's pretty cool when the team says they want me to be around for a little bit longer."
Johnson spent time in the Astros and Diamondbacks organizations, with varying amounts of playing time, before landing in a platoon situation with Juan Francisco at the beginning of the '13 season. He quickly won the starting job, though, and continued to hit at a career-best clip throughout the season: the 29-year-old finished just off the NL batting title pace by hitting .321/.358/.457 with 12 home runs and a 2.8 wins above replacement. He's talked openly about playing with a chip on his shoulder for a variety of reasons -- he couldn't lock up a long-term job at his first two MLB stops and he was largely considered a thrown-in piece in the Justin Upton trade -- and it was evident on Friday that he's more than accepting of the next step in his career.
"I've been in other places and I know how good we have it here. I think it was nice to kind of experience, to go through it the way I did, and I feel like this is as good as it gets," Johnson said. "But I'm not gonna stop working just because of this. I'm not that kind of person. I'm not that kind of guy to get comfortable and just show up every day and go through the motions. I'm going to keep playing hard, keep getting better every single day and try to win as many games as possible until we win the World Series."
The announcement comes with some concerns given Johnson's inflated batting average (he was dubbed the unofficial Lord of BABIP -- batting average on balls in play -- last season), spotty defensive work and limited power numbers at a corner infield position, but it is the cheapest cap hit of the team's recent extension spree. And even if Johnson has already peaked offensively, Wren and his staff are comfortable with what he will become over the next few seasons, calling it a player's traditional prime.
"I think the deal made sense for both sides, as we looked at it. He was looking for stability, we were looking at having a solid player at a tough position to man," Wren said. "And when you look at -- talking to coaches and talking to (manager) Fredi (Gonzalez) -- his approach; Chris, the one thing we were really impressed with last year, he never gave up on his approach. He stayed with it and was consistent. We've seen that and we continue to see that.
"I think what we saw last year, maybe he's not gonna hit .320. But we've always felt he was somewhere in the .280 to .300 range as a hitter. His career will tell you that -- he's a career .287, or whatever it is. And I think as we go forward, that's the kind of player he can be: .285 to .300 range, hit 10-15 home runs, drive in 70 (runs) and play solid third base. And a guy that gives you really solid at-bats."
Johnson stepped into a difficult situation when he was handed the full-time job at third when Francisco was dealt to Milwaukee, trying to fill a position that one of the franchise's all-time greats did for so long before him. That name and number are already on the Turner Field facade: Chipper Jones. But the successor found success, at least as much as one could hope following in those footsteps.
"He never took it as, 'I'm gonna replace Chipper Jones.' He goes, 'I'm gonna go out and play my game and whatever happens happens,'" Gonzalez said. "And I think that mentality also is good. He's gonna do his thing. Chris is not gonna let the outside stuff influence him at all. I think as any young player, I think all of sudden you've got three years, and I mentioned a little bit of this to him in the hallway, you don't have to worry about the next three years. Now you go back to the Little League days where all you worry about after the game was a hot dog and a Coke. Everything else is taken care of."
That doesn't make it a "good" deal in and of itself -- nothing but continued production will -- but the organization obviously feels comfortable in the fact that the Chris Johnson its been slotting in its everyday lineup will be the same Chris Johnson moving forward. His numbers have declined to start the 2014 season, hitting .255/.290/.351 with one home run in 100 plate appearances, but Wren and Gonzalez seem more fixated on his consistent approach at the plate, betting $23.5 million that the numbers will find a happy middle ground.
And if they do over the next three-plus seasons, they have the flexibility to lock him in for a fourth.
Johnson becomes the latest in a long line of Braves extensions this offseason, as the organization continues to buy up players' arbitration years plus one or more free agency seasons -- Johnson had two years remaining in arbitration -- and though he does not fit the homegrown, 25-and-under mold, the deal provides cost- and roster certainty at a difficult position to fill league-wide. Not including Jason Heyward's two-year deal that only bought up his leftover arbitration seasons, the team has now invested north of $290 million long-term in Johnson, first baseman Freddie Freeman, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, starting pitcher Julio Teheran and closer Craig Kimbrel.
The structure of these deals -- locking up young players before they hit the free agent market -- all follow a similar pattern, one popularized by former Indians general manager and Braves adviser John Hart during the mid-1990s, and though it's one becoming more and more prevalent around baseball, the Braves have become one of the leaders of the trend.
"I don't know if we're at the forefront, but we had the players that fit that mold," Wren said. "And I think that's where you have to be careful: you have to have the right combination of players. Especially what we did all winter was look at high-level young talent that was pre-arbitration or first year of arbitration and extending them. (Johnson) fits into that mold.
"You do a lot of homework. Every one of these deals, I've had our staff work them up and look at the comparables, look at who this player compares to, and then I talk to our scouts, talk to our coaching staff, how we think they're gonna progress, how we think they're gonna perform in the future. Does the deal make sense? You kinda lay it out in those parameters with that group of people and, I will tell ya, in all these deals, it came back and it makes sense."