The state of the Red Sox as we stand is this:

  • Mike Lowell is likely to be traded to Texas for catcher Max Ramirez, who is likely to open the season in Triple-A. Assuming he opens the season in the majors, that would lead us to assume Victor Martinez is moved to first and Kevin Youkilis put at third. At that point, this article becomes moot. We will proceed under the assumption this will not happen, because it would catch many by surprise.
  • The vacant spot at third base will be filled by either Kevin Youkilis or Adrian Beltre. If filled by Youkilis, first base is to be filled by either Casey Kotchman or Nick Johnson. The outcome will rely on market valuation. Since Scott Boras is asking for an eight-figure annual salary for Beltre which Boston will not pay, we must proceed with the assumption that Beltre is out and Youkilis slides to third. If the price comes down later in the season, great. Let’s talk then.
  • We then are faced with two choices. Slide Youkilis over to third and commit to Nick Johnson as first-baseman… or leave the window open for Beltre with the expectation that Kotchman ends up at first.

The question is then:

Is Nick Johnson appreciably better than Casey Kotchman based on actual value?

Red Sox vs. Royals

To me, it’s a rather simple answer: No. Casey Kotchman is the better option than Nick Johnson.

Johnson, entering his age-31 year, is coming off a .291/.426/.405 season, split between the Washington Nationals and Florida Marlins. He missed a big chunk of time after being traded to Florida, only furthering the notion that Johnson is injury prone.  His career high in games played was 147 back in 2006. That was followed by a missed year, then 38 and 133 games respectively. Looking over his career, 100 games is about all you can expect from this guy.

Johnson’s value is in his plate discipline. His walks per plate appearance in 2009 (1.72) was third behind Adrian Gonzalez and Adam Dunn. Unlike Gonzalez and Dunn, Johnson’s power has all but disappeared. His fractured leg that wiped him out from 2008 returned him to one without power. 10 home runs is his ceiling in Fenway Park (although he would get a nice bump in doubles).

Defensively, a consensus on Johnson is that he’s average to below-average.

Switching to Casey Kotchman, he has gold glove defense and potential on offense. In full-time duty for Atlanta before the trade to Boston, he was at .282/.354/.409. Not bad, right?

In his time in Atlanta, Kotchman’s power mysteriously vanished. When he was with the Angels, he had enough thump to be a good first-baseman. Prior to the trade for Mark Teixeira in 2008, Kotchman was hitting .287/.327/.448. After the trade, it was .237/.331/.316, followed by the .409 SLG this year.

Kotchman is entering his age 27 year with the Monster looming in front of him. Simply looking at previous production, age, and park, I can’t imagine Kotchman wouldn’t be good for a slugging percentage around .425. This is done completely based on assumptions and eye-balling, and is not based in any statistical valuation. Bill James’ 2010 projection seems to agree, predicting Kotchman for a .419 slugging percentage. Assuming James is spot on with Kotchman at .272/.342/.417, is he better than what Johnson can put up?

Johnson has a projected .289/.414/.434 line coming up via Bill James, but as we all know, offense is just one part of the game. Johnson ranked at -6.6 UZR/150 at first in 2009, with Kotchman at 11.1.

What have we learned so far? Kotchman is an elite defender at first, especially more so than Nick Johnson. Offensively, Johnson provides the clear advantage in on base percentage, but is the advantage enough to nullify his defensive impact, the additional salary Johnson would require (he certainly won’t get this, but FanGraphs valued his 2009 season at $10.9 million, which would have been a market value of $15 million) and the loss of upside in Kotchman tapping back into his potential he flashed in 2004?

If the decision was strictly Johnson and Kotchman to be our first-baseman next year, I’d say that it’s a wash at best. Boston has already tendered Kotchman a contract, and it will probably come in at around $3.5 million.  If we bring in Johnson for a value of, say, $6-7 million, we’ve closed off any chance of signing Adrian Beltre should his price come down, at the expense of Kotchman producing at a WAR/VORP/wOBA/wRC+/WSYCTM (Whatever Statistic You Choose To Measure) appreciably similar to Johnson.

Sure, you run the risk of Kotchman falling flat on his face like he did in Atlanta. You assume the same risk with Johnson and his injury history.

I would much rather take the risk of a younger, gold-glove first-baseman re-establishing his offensive value than Johnson, especially when Adrian Beltre could fall in our laps if (when?) his price comes down. If we have to look for a replacement mid-season, Adrian Gonzalez figures to be more available midseason than he is now, at least according to the most recent reports at the time of this writing. And okay, let’s get off the Adrian Gonzalez bandwagon for a sec: even if he’s not available, the odds are we will be able to get a slugging first-baseman rather easily.

There are a lot more factors in favor of Kotchman than Johnson. If Beltre becomes available at a market valuation that is worth his addition, you’ll see me dancing in the streets. I can’t say the same about Johnson.

UPDATE: Well, so much for that. Looks like Johnson’s becoming the Yankees’ DH for $5.5 million over one year. Point still stands.