The Rays may have lost a legend on Thursday, but where will the Pumpkin go next? Could he possibly return to the Rays in 2012?
Dan Johnson has been perhaps one my favorite Rays for the last two years. Johnson has been a perpetual underdog: he was drafted in the seventh round, he has traveled to the the Far East to play in Japan, he has weathered innumerable Triple-A bus trips, he has ridden the caboose of the pine, and he has done it all in hopes of securing that ever-elusive starting job.
The Myth is Born
The Tampa Bay Rays acquired Dan Johnson on April 18, 2008, when the Oakland Athletics -- the team that drafted him -- tried to pass him through waivers. With just one MLB plate appearance (PA) on the season, Dan Johnson went to the Rays Triple-A affiliate, the Durham Bulls, where he stayed until September 9, 2008, when the Rays called him up for a pivotal game against the Boston Red Sox, who trailed the Rays by just half a game in the AL East standings.
In the top of the 9th inning, with Boston's elite closer Jonathon Papelbon on the mound and the Rays losing 4-3, Joe Maddon announced righty Justin Ruggiano as the pinch hitter for DH Cliff Floyd, then sent Dan Johnson -- arrived only hours early -- instead. Johnson worked a 3-2 count, then crushed the next Papelbon pitch deep over the center-field wall and into Rays history.
Johnson only played in eight more games through the remainder of the season, starting only three of those. The following December, the hero of the Rays 2008 season signed with the Yokohama Bay Stars -- a team in Japan's power-starved NPB league. With the Stars, Johnson again flexed his power despite the league's predisposition against such displays, and the Rays signed him as a free agent January 11, 2010.
Buried under Carlos Pena on the depth chart, Johnson went back to Durham, where he hit a whopping 30 homers in just 426 PAs -- good for an offensive production 80% above league average (per wRC+) and an International League MVP trophy.
When Pena went down in early August with an injury, the Rays again called on the red head and installed him as their 1B/DH swing man. During that late season stint, he again worked his clutch magic, hitting three key homers in the Rays' final five games against the New York Yankees -- again helping the Rays secure an AL East title.
Around this time, fans at DRaysBay started calling Dan Johnson "Pumpkin," both because of his ginger complexion and -- like the Great Pumpkin of Charlie Brown fame -- his propensity to rise once a year and do something amazing.
Then 2011 came. Johnson, projected by some systems to hit as many as 25 homers, hit only 2 all year. I was present at his first homer. On a chilly April night in Chicago, the 0-6 Tampa Bay Rays came to the southside looking for their first win of the season. And, after they reached the 9th inning, in the process of losing once again, the Rays began surging back as the White Sox closer Matt Thornton and the White Sox defense began to unravel.
Suddenly, a 7-4 deficit had melted to a 7-6 margin, with two players on, one out, and Dan Johnson at the plate.
"C'mon Pumpkin!" I yelled as loud as my hoarse voice could manage.
Johnson's Jim Thome-like open stance closed and then opened up again like spring-loaded action figure, sending the bat through the zone with just enough torque to blast a high, high fly ball into the right field bullpen. The Rays won 9-7, they went to 1-6, and I walked home enjoying the chorus of boos and profanity my Rays paraphernalia earned me.
With his first homer, Johnson gave the Rays their first win of the 2011 season. With his second homer, he gave them their final win of the regular season and their first-ever consecutive playoff birth. In between, he had a rough time. Johnson hit himself right out of job, falling back to Durham by late May. Even in Durham, he struggled to find his power stroke -- until the final month of the season when he suddenly hitting 6 homers in 114 plate appearances.
He finished his minor league encore with 13 homers and a .339 wOBA -- good for an impressive 32% above league average. So, the Rays brought Johnson back with the September call-ups. And with one out left, one run down, and one strike away from the off-season, a pinch-hitting Pumpkin did this:
But when the Rays trimmed the roster down for the playoffs, Dan Johnson -- who was still with the team and visible in the dugout -- was not on it.
Now, with the off-season gaining it's typical momentum, Dan Johnson is no longer with the Rays. The Rays apparently wanted to assign Johnson back to the Triple-A roster, but Johnson exercised his right to decline, making him a free agent.
Where to for Dan Johnson?
Johnson has never received 500 PAs in the majors. Despite his now-famous heroics, despite his merciless destruction of the minor leagues, and despite his track record as a punisher of pitch counts, Johnson has never been given a starting gig in the majors.
The Rays tried to give him one in 2011, but Casey Kotchman's career year and Johnson's own cold start ended that endeavor. And in 2012, Johnson will be 32 years old -- not the 28 year-old almost-prospect the Rays acquired back in 2008.
One might think Johnson's best fit is still with the Rays -- who have openings at first base and DH now that Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman's contracts have expired. Of course, the Rays may bring back either of those gentleman, but they individually promise to require at least $4 to $7M each. Johnson could likely be had for his around previous price tag of $1M.
Johnson may look to make a comeback in the Far East as well, but his age might discourage Japanese teams from giving him a second go-round -- moreover, Johnson apparently didn't enjoy his first his first go-round. A shrewd team out of contention, like the Chicago Cubs or Oakland Athletics, might consider bringing Johnson on, pumping his value up, and then trading him near the deadline as a pinch hitter / designated hitter combo.
All considered, it's hard to say where exactly Johnson will land. There may be a chance he catches on with another club on a minor league contract -- maybe with a team struggling with their first base depth, such as the Rays, so his chances at seeing more action would be greater -- but at this point it's hard to speculate.
It's also hard to say goodbye, but we Rays fans must -- at least for now -- say goodbye and, above all, say thanks.