Choosing Between Elliot Johnson and Felipe Lopez | The Process Report

Choosing Between Elliot Johnson and Felipe Lopez

There appeared to be two positional battles heading into camp. One appears settled – at least for now – while the other is between Elliot Johnson and Felipe Lopez.

This one is more difficult to call, as Johnson is out of options and Lopez is here on a minor league deal. Ordinarily, such a predicament means the Rays would send Lopez to the minors for a little while either pursuing a trade or awaiting an injury, as Lopez’s deal very well could include an opt-out clause towards June – as is common for veterans who sign big league deals. (Keep this in mind for Juan Cruz’s situation, as he may begin the season in Durham just to prove his health before joining the team – similar to Joaquin Benoit last year.) The added ditty on Johnson is he was placed on waivers last year only to pass through successfully. He probably saw his stock increase with a strong showing last season, as the Rays even went through the paperwork of adding him to the 40-man roster once more.

By all accounts, neither Johnson nor Lopez is a good defensive shortstop, meaning it could come down to offensive projections, an argument Lopez wins easily – at least according to PECOTA. With comparables such as Brian Barden, Ronny Cedeno, and J.J. Furmaniak (a potential Durham teammate) PECOTA forecasts Johnson to hit .246/.299/.376, while pegging Lopez at .267/.338/.372 (in the interest of full disclosure, Lopez’s comparables are Buddy Bell, Mark Ellis, and Alan Trammell). Neither is Chase Utley, but Lopez has a significant advantage in on-base percentage.

Johnson presumably has more flexibility, as in the past he’s dabbled in the outfield for the Rays and – rather hilariously – started a game at designated hitter for the club in 2008. Still, the only ostensible upside is added depth. This is not a prestigious gig, though, as the winner of the job figures to be – at best – the backup shortstop, third option at second base, and perhaps the second or third option at third base. Consider it the Willy Aybar role (in 2008) without the occasional first base starts.

Since playing time could prove sparse, then the conversation must include some analysis on Lopez’s attitude – or at least some speculation from an ignorant outsider. He seems to wear out his welcome quickly, as corroborated with the Rays marking his fifth team since 2009 and seventh team since 2006. Confusing correlation for causation is a common mistake and one easily made in cases like this. Teams are willing to employ Lopez when he plays well and only dump him when his play sours.

Nate Silver once employed a chart that shows the differences between pitchers with varying stuff and durability in four quadrants. Players and attitudes can be broken down similarly too. Teams will put up with surliness and toxic personalities as long as the players produce. It dates back to Sparky Anderson separating the superstars from the role players in terms of expected behavior during the Big Red Machine days. An underperforming player who is also a sourpuss is dealt with accordingly because there is no margin for error. Ultimately, teams pay for production and occasionally a team will spend a few hundred thousand to a million on a guy with no discernable attributes except a nice smile and firm handshake.

If Lopez is a poor sport, then Joe Maddon will have to work his voodoo in coaxing him into a lesser role where playing time is sporadic and unproven players – at least through the eyes of a jealous veteran – are treated superiorly and with patience. Maybe Lopez’s acceptance of a minor league deal is an implicit consent to a reduced role in the world of baseball – or maybe not. If he performs, he’ll stick, so the bigger questions are where will he perform first and when we will he make his Rays’ debut. Not whether the Rays’ clubhouse can sustain a good environment with Lopez or if the $1 million dollar carrot dangling in front of his nose will keep him chipper.

In the end, the decision may come down to which philosophy the Rays employ. Will they go with the (seemingly) better player, or attempt to squeeze the most out of the roster limits once more? After all, this team essentially rolled with 42 players on its 40-man roster for a week.

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