Rebuild Reflection: KJ Reunion Signals a Less Tank-ish 2016?

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The Braves have gone out and made a Feel-Good-Pick-Up that seems to be worth a pleasant chuckle in re-re-welcoming Kelly Johnson to Atlanta. As most reading this are aware, KJ was one of the “Baby Braves,” a group of young, homegrown players that reached Atlanta circa 2005, ushering in hope for sustained success in Braves Country. The now utility man didn’t last all that long as a Brave and didn’t have all that much success while he was one, but many fans were nostalgic and pleased when he returned to the roster last off season. Many were then displeased when he was shipped out with Juan Uribe to the rival Mets mid 2015, being that Johnson was having a pretty productive year. Now KJ is back. And here we are feeling pretty good again. Like I said, worth a chuckle. Right?

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This should be self-explanatory. [Columbia Pictures]

It may very well be that this signing is actually influenced quite a bit by the story line I just outlined, particularly as the 2016 Braves are currently boasting very little to motivate fans to come on down and buy expensive beer. But I sense a faint hint of something more in this move. I see it as a signal that the Braves are not Tanking, and that they intend to make the most out of this offseason and the 2016 season. Hear me out.

Johnson’s value is in that he can platoon with and back up several Braves and lately has been a league average bat. He adds flexibility and insurance with the Braves’ weird 3B/LF situation. He can give Freddie Freeman a day off or fill in if his wrist is an issue. Same at 2B and even SS, if the need presented itself.

“So what. The Braves added a veteran role player.”

True, hypothetical skeptic! Kelly Johnson is not a bold signing, and he is not going to move the dial much on the Braves win total this year. That said, it’s not a move that the Braves needed to make… yet they made it. It seems to me that the only reason Coppolella and Co. would make this move is to try to gain a little marginal upside over what they already had. A team that is tanking, as in intentionally throwing in the towel on a season, wouldn’t do that. Let’s consider KJ’s profile in the context of the Braves current roster to clarify this.

Corner Outfield: Johnson can play LF and assumedly RF. Yet the Braves already have a logjam in the outfield. So much so that they will almost certainly unload either Bourne or Swisher, even if they have to eat half or more of their contract (they almost certainly would have to). The Braves have added Emilio Bonafacio who can back up all 3 spots in the OF, and also have replacement level options in Gwinnett. Not to mention the fact that Mallex Smith is knocking on the door, which could complicate the big league OF situation further. Needless to say, there was no glaring need to add KJ for his role in the OF.

3B/2B: The Braves are pretty deep in terms of quantity, if not quality in this department, too. The club has signed Gordon Beckham and the aforementioned Bonafiacio, both of whom can spell the presumptive starters Adonis Garcia and Jace Peterson at 3B and 2B, respectively. They also have Daniel Castro who can step back into a utility role if needed. Offensively, KJ is an upgrade over the three back ups that I’ve mentioned here. But Atlanta was clearly not without big league level options at third and second.

1B: This role is the only one that we could say was something of a “need” that bringing back Johnson filled. Particularly considering that Freeman hasn’t yet proven that his nagging wrist is a thing of the past, having someone set to play first in his absence was a must. Yet again though, the Braves had this covered at least with a degree of comfort via Swisher. It’s not a great bet that he would be very productive in a starting role for any period of time, and he comes with his own health concerns. But Swisher is a big leaguer with experience at 1B. Not exactly scrambling to triple-A for a solution or converting your backup catcher all willy-nilly.

“Yeah, but KJ is a clear upgrade as the backup first baseman.”

Agreed! Bringing us back to our point: the Braves went out and spent 2 million buckaroos to secure some marginal upside in a backup. That sum of money on it’s own shouldn’t speak very loudly. This sounds a bit odd, but it’s the smallness of the move that signals something more to me. Johnson isn’t about taking the place of someone else more expensive, who can then be shipped out. He isn’t a long term solution somewhere. He isn’t a pitching prospect. He could be a trade chip again this year, which would be further chuckle-worthy, but he is one year older and whatever the Braves could get for him would only amount to system depth in light of the Prospect Parade© that the club has already assembled. By my calculus, the only reason to sign Kelly Johnson is to be as good as possible in 2016 within the parameters of the philosophy guiding the rebuild. Teams that are after a draft position-driven Tank Job don’t make chess moves to improve the productivity of their bench.

Now then. Does this mean that the Braves’ current roster actually improved because of this move? It’s possible, depending on how a lot of things work out. But if you’re looking for 2016 optimism, look beyond the addition of Johnson per se, and instead view this as reason to believe that the Braves have a little more up their sleeve to improve the club before Spring Training is upon us. That’s what this writer is doing, if you haven’t noticed.

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