Johnson preparing for transition
Now healthy, he has inside track on claiming second base
ATLANTA -- If learning to play second base simply required one to field thousands of ground balls over the course of the winter, then Kelly Johnson would have already mastered his targeted new position.
Unfortunately for Johnson, the countless hours that he's spent doing so at Turner Field this offseason have only prepared him for the start of his journey. Until he plays the position during Spring Training games, he can be considered only one of the five candidates to replace Marcus Giles as the Braves' starting second baseman.
"You never know until you start playing games," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "You can work out all you want. [Johnson] is an athlete. All he needs is to get some games in."
While never indicating that the job will definitely belong to Johnson, Cox and Braves general manager John Schuerholz have dropped hints that they see him as the front-runner in a competition that will also include Martin Prado, Chris Woodward, Willy Aybar and Pete Orr.
Unlike the others, though, Johnson has never played second base. He began his professional career as a shortstop and then was converted into an outfielder in 2004. One year later, Johnson found himself as Atlanta's starting left fielder.
Johnson, who missed the 2006 season due to Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, finds himself in good position to serve as both the starting second baseman and leadoff hitter.
"This is probably the best potential move that could have happened to me," said Johnson, who hit .241 with nine homers and a .334 on-base percentage in 290 at-bats with Atlanta in 2005.
Fortunately for Johnson, he's had Braves first-base coach Glenn Hubbard around to help him make the transition. Along with providing countless hours of his time this offseason, Hubbard has been able to provide his knowledge of the position he played in Atlanta from 1978-87.
Hubbard, who helped Giles evolve from a defensive liability to a potential Gold Glove winner, has been happy with Johnson's progress. But at the same time, Hubbard is unsure how Johnson will react to such things as turning a tough double play or assuming his responsibilities on bunts until he sees some game action.
"Even with Marcus, it took him two years in the big leagues before you could tell that he knew he could play that position," said Hubbard.
Johnson had hoped to spend some of this month fielding his new position while some of his Braves teammates took outdoor batting practice at Turner Field. But the cold and wet conditions that have hit Atlanta the past couple of weeks have limited those opportunities that would have been more beneficial than the daily fielding of grounders off of a fungo bat.
While at Turner Field this week, Johnson went into the video room and watched replays of each of the double plays that were either turned by or against the Braves last year. He came away realizing that there isn't a regimented right way to perform this ever-important task.
"There's things they tell you not to do to make sure you become fundamentally sound," Johnson said. "But there's guys that are doing it. If anything, it showed me that I don't have to be perfect."
Johnson's offseason workouts and continued rehab have forced him to be away from the comforts of his home for nearly eight hours a day, five days a week. But through this, he feels that he's improved both his speed and flexibility.
Just as importantly, all of this work has been done with a potential reward in sight. During his inactivity last year, there were obviously days in which Johnson couldn't have foreseen this potentially rewarding situation that awaits him at Spring Training.
"The more you sit and watch, the more you feel like you're just rotting," Johnson said. "But I feel good right now. I feel like I can play."
While pleased with what he's seen from Johnson this offseason, Hubbard looks forward to seeing each of the players compete for the second-base job. He's very high on Prado, who he says plays defense with the confidence that 11-time Gold Glove winner Omar Vizquel displays.
"Competition is always a good thing," Hubbard said. "It makes you elevate your game a little bit. It's like when Tiger Woods came into golf, it made the rest of the guys better. When you get guys out there competing against each other, everybody raises their game a little bit."
And if Johnson emerges as the winner of the competition?
"If he wins the job in Spring Training, it's not going to end our work," Hubbard said. "He isn't a finished product just because he wins the job. He's still got a long ways to go and it's a process."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.