The end of Nick Johnson, could-have-been baseball titan

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Nick Johnson's final at-bat. (MLB.com)
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Nick Johnson, the onetime uber-prospect for the New York Yankees, announced his retirement on Monday.

Johnson had a perfectly good career, with a robust 123 O.P.S.+ over 3,316 career plate appearances for the Yankees, Nationals, Marlins and Orioles.

It could have been so much more.

It is easy to forget just how highly regarded Johnson was, and why. But when he was starting out, he looked to many sane observers like nothing less than a future Hall of Famer.

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The Yankees drafted Johnson in the third round of the 1996 draft, and from the moment he signed, he hit the ball well, and posted absurdly high on-base percentages. He broke 1.000 O.P.S. at Single-A in 1998, thanks to a .466 on-base percentage, for instance.

Here's Baseball Prospectus on Johnson, back in 1999: 

Johnson has drawn comparisons to Will Clark, but I see him more as Jim Thome, without the fashion statement. Johnson is going to be great; the only question is opportunity.

Then Johnson went out, at the age of 20, and put together the kind of season at Double-A that simply doesn't happen: a .345/.525/.548 slash line, with a ridiculous 123 walks in 581 plate appearances. 

Prospectus then made Johnson the top prospect in baseball. Even Baseball America, less taken with on-base percentage at the time, had Johnson fifth overall. But the hint of what would derail his career is part of what Prospectus noted at the end of his 2000 comment: "One word of caution: he was hit by pitches 37 times this year and has yet to stay healthy for a complete season."

In 2001, a wrist injury kept him out for the full year.

Johnson's numbers dropped some after a year off, but he still managed  a gaudy .407 on-base percentage and .870 O.P.S. at Triple-A, and did so at the age of 22, young for the league. The talent was too much to write off, and Prospectus had this to say prior to 2002: 

Johnson missed all of 2000 due to a mysterious (and still slightly worrisome) wrist injury. No matter: he's destined for greatness. Johnson possesses a Max Bishop/Rickey Henderson batting eye and a very quick stroke, and he plays a pretty good first base, too. There aren't many players with exactly the same skill set. He'll likely end up as a cross between John Olerud and Barry Bonds. I think most Yankees fans can live with that, even if it takes him a few years to get there.

High praise, but seemingly justified. Baseball America had him as the 13th-best prospect in all of baseball. An oft-injured first baseman was that impressive.

Johnson struggled through his rookie season in 2002, but the player most were expecting showed up in 2003 for the Yankees: a .284/.422/.472 line produced a 138 O.P.S.+, good enough for All-Star consideration, but for the injuries. He played in just 96 games. The Yankees gave up on the idea of a healthy Nick Johnson, and shipped him to the Montreal Expos that December in a deal to bring back Javier Vaquez.

The rest of baseball soon came to a similar conclusion. Here's Prospectus, by 2005, realizing that Johnson simply didn't have it in him to stay healthy:

The ball jumps off his bat. He has amazing control of the strike zone. He's still potentially one of the best hitters in of baseball. He plays first well enough that when he can be penciled onto a lineup card, he can be a huge asset to his team. But Johnson can't stay healthy. He's Elijah Price, he attracts injuries of all kinds. This year he had trouble with his back, aggravated by the turf at Olympic Stadium, a sore right knee, and a ground ball jumped up on him and broke his cheekbone, ending his season.

Ironically, it was at this moment that Johnson appeared to prove the naysayers wrong. He played in 131 games for the 2005 Nationals (after the Expos relocated to Washington), posting that beautiful .289/.408/.479 slash line. And in 2006, he played in 147 games: .290/.428/.520, 23 home runs. He was 27 years old. Everything was possible.

And then, fittingly in New York, Johnson collided with teammate Austin Kearns chasing a David Wright pop up at Shea Stadium. He broke his leg, ending his season, costing him 2007 as well.

“Before we get started, I’d just like for you guys that know Nick Johnson to say a little prayer for him tonight,” Mets manager Willie Randolph said at the start of his postgame news conference just after the obviously devastating injury. “You know, he’s a great kid and it’s tough to see him out there like that.”

By the time Johnson returned in 2008, his range at first base had diminished, and much of his power had disappeared, too. He managed just a .405 slugging percentage in 2009, a season he split between the Nationals and Marlins over 133 games. The Yankees even brought him back in 2010, but he played in just 24 games before wrist surgeries ended his season.

Said Prospectus, in 2011: 

Brian Cashman approached Nick Johnson like a game of "Minesweeper," figuring that every possible injury square on the board had been uncovered. Surprise—Johnson has nothing but injury squares. Sidelined from May 8 on by not one but two wrist surgeries, Johnson failed to hit even when ostensibly healthy, suggesting that all the downtime and busted parts are starting to catch up to him.

Even to the end, though, Johnson still managed to get on base. In what was his final season last year, playing with Baltimore, he hit only .207. His range and his power gone, he played all but five games at designated hitter, and slugged just .391. Still, he got on base at a respectable .324 clip, drawing 11 walks in 102 plate appearances from pitchers who had little left to fear from throwing him strikes.

Then another wrist injury ended his season in June.