Nationals Deal Nick Johnson, Net Double-A Lefty

The Deal
The thought of the Marlins operating as trade deadline buyers may seem to go against type, but that’s exactly the strategy the club has taken in each of the past two seasons. This time around, they shipped 2005 first-round lefthander Aaron Thompson to the Nationals for first baseman Nick Johnson, who represents a significant offensive upgrade to the Marlins. The surprising Fish entered play on July 31 at 53-49, three games off the wild card pace—but behind three other teams. Washington also sent $1.5 million in cash to Florida to foot the remainder of Johnson’s contract, which is set to expire after the season.

Last season, Florida acquired veteran lefty reliever Arthur Rhodes in their pursuit of the Brewers, who held a two-game advantage in the wild card race. When the dust settled, Florida had fallen to 5 1/2 games off the pace.

Johnson batted .295/.408/.402 with six home runs and 45 RBIs for Washington, and he will take over as the Marlins’ full-time first baseman, shifting Jorge Cantu to third base, his primary position in 2008. This move also relegates Emilio Bonifacio, who had slipped to .249/.296/.313 after a hot start, to a utility role down the stretch. Johnson was unable to play regularly in 2007 and 2008, but by his standards he’s been healthy this season, accumulating 356 at-bats, which represented his highest total since 2006.

The Young Player
The 2005 draft’s 22nd overall pick, Thompson signed for $1.225 million out of a Houston-area high school. The 22-year-old possessed the best changeup in the Marlins system, but that did not prevent him from moving slowly up the chain. In his repeat of Double-A this season, he was 5-9, 4.11 through 20 starts for Jacksonville. He struck out 75 and walked 43 over 114 innings. Thompson dealt with minor shoulder issues in 2008 that cost him two months of the season. In 16 starts with Double-A Carolina last season, he went 2-5, 5.62 with 53 strikeouts in 82 innings. He allowed 111 hits and walked 40.

Thompson throws a fastball in the 88-91 mph range to go along with a good slider, a serviceable curveball and the aforementioned change. He has a great pick-off move to first base, too. Thompson’s ability to keep the ball in the park (0.55 home runs per nine this season) and on the ground bodes well for his future. He has the ability to command all of his pitches, and improving his command will help him reach his ceiling as a back-end starter.

Quick Take
Johnson, 30, helps the Marlins offense become more dynamic, both because he adds a lefty bat to righthanded-heavy lineup and because he’s so accomplished at reaching base. His .414 on-base percentage ranks eighth in the big leagues, and Florida will feel an added impact because he replaces Bonifacio in the order.

Johnson likely will not qualify as a Type A or B free agent, and he had no interest in returning next season with the last-place Nats, so Washington did well enough in netting a pitching prospect with major league upside for two months of a player they were not likely to re-sign nor receive any compensations picks.

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