Nick Johnson: Bounty or bust?

I was recently asked by a fellow writer what I thought about Nick Johnson and his prospects for having a good 2008 season. The main concern here is his injury history, the less-than-potent lineup he belongs to, and the fact that he has been battling Dmitri Young for playing time.

Nick Johnson: An Overview of Production

The somewhat pudgy first baseman for the Washington Nationals should not be mistaken as someone who cannot play baseball, yet he is being widely ignored in most fantasy baseball circles. You only get nicknamed “Nick the Stick” if you can hit, and if…well…nevermind.

He is listed at 6-foot-3, 224 lbs., but in past years has looked more like 230-240 (though watching him tonight, he could pass for 220) . His injury history is legendary, and his propensity for the minor injuries that last for what seem like decades is what drives managers away from drafting him and his outstanding abilities at the plate.

Nick Johnson is a player with great patience at the plate, drawing a hefty number of walks and providing an on base percentage over .400 on a regular basis. He is no slouch when it comes to hitting, either. He should be considered, for all intents and purposes, a .285 hitter who can take over games with an occasional outburst of production.

2006 was his most successful offensive season yet, with 23 home runs, 77 RBIs, and a tremendous .290/.428/.520 line. He somehow managed to elude opposing battery units by swiping 10 bags to boot, which is hard to believe given the fact that it is a widely held belief that he is overweight and out of shape. The 46 doubles that he mustered was amongst the tops in the NL.

The most impressive aspect of Nick Johnson’s 2006 campaign is that it occurred in RFK Stadium, which almost certainly hindered his power production, because it is notorious for being a pitcher-friendly park. Now that the Nationals are in their new confines, look for a healthy Nick Johnson to boost his home run totals to right around 30.

Yet, he is still being found on many free agent and waiver lists across many leagues. If you have a shallow bench with some Yuniesky Betancourt-like players, do yourself a favor and add a player like Nick Johnson. Sure, he could end up getting hurt, but while healthy, he will offer a stellar average, on-base percentage, and good power and RBI production. You cannot say the same for Betancourt, who is one dimensional in the average category.

Injury Analysis: What to Expect

The easy answer: expect that he will miss 30 games this season. He has struggled to stay healthy his entire career. If you look at his games played since 2002, he has managed to play in: 129, 96, 73, 131, and 147 games. He missed all of 2007 with his broken femur.

He has sustained injuries to many body parts in his career. In 2003, he had a fracture in his right hand, and missed more than two months of the season as a result. He struggled in 2004 after having a lingering back injury, as well as a fractured cheekbone from a batted ball. He never did on track during the 2004 season, in all likelihood a result of his back injury.

In the two seasons that he stayed relatively healthy, 2005 and 2006, Johnson provided outstanding production for the Washington Nationals. He routinely had one of the best on-base percentages in all of baseball, including a .478 OBP with runners in scoring position during the 2005 campaign.

In 2006, he was third in the league in walks with 110, and was in the top 10 in both intentional walks and doubles. He also set career highs in on base percentage (.428), batting average (.290), and slugging percentage (.520). Late in 2006, he suffered a significant fracture of his right femur after colliding with Austin Kearns while attempting to field a ball. He required surgical fixation of the fracture later that night, which further highlights the severity of the injury.

A broken femur is not what I would classify in the “minor” injuries column. The femur is the largest bone in the human body, so in order to break it, an extraordinary amount of force is required. This bone is extremely important for weight bearing, and it also serves as a major site of muscle attachment for the quadriceps, hip muscles, and groin muscles.

Johnson struggled to regain his ability to run and bear weight through the leg, primarily due to scar tissue formation and secondary issues at his hip. He also struggled to regain the strength in his entire leg due to this. In addition to the original surgery to repair the fracture site, he also had two other surgeries to remove scar tissue from the area, and to remove the original hardware (rods and screws) from the femur.

Now that the fracture site is fully healed, we should not expect any further injury from the fracture itself. There should be, however, some concern as to how strong and well conditioned he is. The Nationals would be best advised to rest him at least once a week in order to prevent him from wearing down over the course of the season.

The one bright spot is that he hits left handed, so the right femur is his lead leg, not his plant leg. The plant leg is the one that needs to be loaded with body weight as the pitch is delivered, and also provides a base of support during the swing. For this reason, I would not expect a huge dropoff in his power numbers as most people would expect.

That being said, I would expect Nick Johnson to miss his usual 20-30 games this season as the Nationals attempt to preserve the health of their best pure hitter. If he can stay on the field for most of the 2008 season, it is not out of the question to see a player with improved numbers from his 2006 season across the board.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Projection: .290/.410/.530; 28 home runs, 95 RBIs.

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