Johnson on verge of joining Rays' roster
Infielder/outfielder impressing club with versatility, drive
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Elliot Johnson is on the verge of making the Rays as the team's utility infielder.
To that end, Rays manager Joe Maddon wanted to take a look at Johnson playing shortstop, so Johnson batted leadoff and played shortstop on Tuesday against the Blue Jays.
Johnson has played mostly second base during his six seasons in the Rays' organization, but he has shown the desired flexibility to play other positions throughout the spring, as he's played third base, center field, shortstop and second base.
"I think whether or not I can play shortstop might be the one question mark they are wondering about," Johnson said. "If they need to give [starting shortstop Jason] Bartlett a day off, can I play there? They want to know if I can handle it."
Entering Spring Training, Ben Zobrist looked like the favorite to win the Rays' utility job. But Zobrist broke the tip of his left thumb and will not be ready to play by Opening Day, leaving Johnson and Andy Cannizaro as the most likely candidates to fill the position. While Cannizaro has more experience at shortstop than Johnson, he has experienced back pain this spring, which could be a strike against him since the team is heading for cold weather, and that typically does not bode well for someone with a questionable back.
Johnson became a media sensation earlier in the spring when he bowled over Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli, breaking Cervelli's right wrist. The play became the focal point for bad blood between the Rays and Yankees. Since then, everything Johnson has done has been impressive, including hitting the baseball. After going 1-for-4 on Tuesday, Johnson is now hitting .447 in 19 games this spring. Maddon was asked what he hopes to see from Johnson playing shortstop.
"Just that he can do it," Maddon said. "He's looked really good in practice. Every place we've put him in practice, he's looked really good. Third base, shortstop, center field, so again, it's just the fact he has some kind of comfort there."
Johnson looked extremely comfortable on Tuesday when he was the pivot man for a 4-6-3 double play in the first inning of the Rays' 10-0 win.
"He looked good on that double play," Maddon said. "He's really simplified his footwork."
Johnson said he feels comfortable at shortstop.
"I have a good first step, but they want to see me catch the ball, throw the ball," Johnson said. "They want to feel comfortable having me out there. I have to go out there and show them what I can do -- more from the defensive side now."
Maddon said one of the big adjustments for a second baseman moving to shortstop is the throw to first, because the second baseman can normally wait on ground balls due to the shorter throw, whereas playing shortstop requires fielding the ball quicker so the throw can beat the runner. Infield coach Tom Foley has worked with Johnson on that aspect of playing shortstop.
[Johnson's got] a fine arm," Maddon said. "Being a second baseman, people think that he doesn't throw well -- he throws real well, actually. On this side of the bag, it's a matter of playing through the ball better and using his feet properly."
Johnson is close to making the team and becoming a Major Leaguer for the first time in his professional career. A lot of players would downplay that fact to throw up a smokescreen about what is churning inside. Not Johnson.
"I think about it all the time," Johnson said. "I'm not going to lie to you. I want to make the team. I feel this is my opportunity to do it. I'm just trying to make sure they don't have a reason to send me down."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.