Third baseman's new deal includes a $10 million club option for 2018 season
MIAMI -- Chris Johnson did not allow himself to be bothered by the fact that he was considered the "other guy" the D-backs sent with Justin Upton to Atlanta last year. In his mind, you could call him whatever you wanted as long as he got to realize his childhood dream to be a part of the Braves organization.
Johnson made the most of his opportunity as the 2013 season proved to be the finest of his blossoming career. He finished second in the National League batting-title race, proved to be a solid successor to Chipper Jones and celebrated a division title for the first time in his career.
But the most satisfying product of last year's success was realized on Friday afternoon, when the Braves officially announced that they had given Johnson a three-year contract extension that will keep the third baseman in Atlanta through at least the 2017 season.
"It's pretty cool," Johnson said with a wide smile. "Without the dollar figure or anything, just hearing them say they want to have me around for three years after this, that is pretty cool in itself."
With that being said, the financial aspect certainly added to the thrill of this commitment. Johnson's three-year, $23 million contract includes a $10 million club option for the 2018 season. The deal buys out his final two arbitration-eligible seasons and at least the first of his free-agent-eligible seasons.
Given that Johnson gained a one-year, $4.75 million deal through arbitration this year, there is certainly reason to believe that at some point over the next two seasons his salary could have risen above the $7.83 million average annual salary he will receive from 2015-17.
"I think the deal made sense for both sides as we looked at it," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "He was looking for stability and we were looking to have a solid player at a tough position to man.
"Chris is 29 years old. When this contract is over, he's 32. We all feel like that is when they're in their prime. So it was another example of tying up a player long term, but not extending beyond their prime."
When the Braves spent the latter portion of January and early part of February buying out free-agent years with the contract extensions to Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel, Johnson was not considered a prime candidate to join the group of younger players, none of whom had yet completed an arbitration-eligible season.
Unlike the other four aforementioned players, Johnson has never been tagged as a potential superstar. But somewhere in the process of hitting .321 with 12 home runs and an .816 OPS last year, the gritty third baseman displayed a blue collar, disciplined approach that gave the Braves reason to think they would like to keep him around for more than just a couple years.
"The one thing we were impressed with last year was he never gave up on his approach," Wren said. "He stayed with it and was consistent. We've continued to see that."
Wren and manager Fredi Gonzalez both said this never-say-die approach was evidenced again on Thursday night, when Johnson worked a 10-pitch walk off Marlins right-hander A.J. Ramos with two outs in the eighth and the Braves trailing by one run.
Plate appearances like those have given the Braves reason to overlook the inconsistent April experienced by Johnson, who entered Friday hitting .255 with one home run and a .641 OPS. The veteran third baseman was in the midst of a 4-for-33 skid before recording three hits in Thursday's loss.
"Maybe he's not going to hit .320. But we've always felt he was somewhere in the .280 to .300 range as a hitter," Wren said. "His career will tell you that. As we go forward, we believe that is the kind of player he can be, in that [.280 to .300] range and hit 10 to 15 home runs, drive in 70 and play solid third base."
Thoughts of this deal materializing started to take shape after Johnson's agent, Jim Murray, called Wren just after this season began. Murray did all the leg work and waited until two weeks ago to inform Johnson that they were getting close to a potential deal.
"I'm not going to stop working just because of this," Johnson said. "I'm not that kind of guy to get comfortable and just show up every day and go through the motions. I'm going to keep working hard and try to get better every single day and try to win as many games as possible until we win a World Series."