3/14/2014 4:58 P.M. ET
Johnson trying to prove utility off Indians bench
Non-roster invitee can play short, second, third and outfield
By Joey Nowak / MLB.com
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The Indians' non-roster invitees have dozens of years of service time, playoff experience and even All-Star appearances and an MVP trophy among them. Competition is fierce and anything a player can do to set himself apart is crucial. It certainly helps when a player has held seven positions over a four-year career.
That would be Elliot Johnson, who doesn't have Jason Giambi's MVP or Jeff Francoeur's Gold Glove, or even Nyjer Morgan's playoff profile. But the uber-versatile utility man has spent his entire career playing for contenders, and hopes the Indians will be next. He's one of a handful of non-roster invitees battling for a bench spot along with incumbents Giambi, Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn.
"It comes out of necessity," Johnson said of his versatility. "If you're a guy that can't contribute with the bat over 162 games, you end up becoming a guy that has to play multiple positions. I haven't really proven that I can hit for a full season, so this is kind of what you do. It's not like you come up knowing you're going to be a utility guy. Everybody comes up playing one spot, and then you kind of end up falling to where you fill in."
Johnson was signed by the Rays as an amateur free agent in 2002, and only appeared in seven big-league games before the 2011 season, when he saw 70 with Tampa Bay. He was the designated hitter in his first Major League game in 2008, and also played second base, shortstop and center and right field in those seven games that year.
The majority of his professional games have come at shortstop (137), with 84 at second base, 13 at third and 12 split between the three outfield spots.
"It all starts around shortstop," Johnson said. "If you can do short, then you can do the second [base] job. Having the ability to play short, you have to have a good skill set, but you also have to have some intelligence, and the guys that stick there are really impressive because it's the toughest position from a skill standpoint and you've got to be able to last a long season. There's a lot of things that come into play. And being able to hit for that long, too -- to me, the shortstop is the most special position on the field."
Since that spot in the Indians lineup is pretty well locked up by Asdrubal Cabrera, Johnson finds himself trying to make the team any way he can. Over a four-year career between the Rays, Royals and Braves, Johnson has never hit above .242 for a season. But he's proven impressive in all facets this spring with a .429 batting average through nine Cactus League games. He has two homers, two triples, five runs, six RBIs and a 1.359 OPS.
"Because he is swinging the bat, it makes it easy because of what he does defensively," Indians manager Terry Francona said of finding room for Johnson in the lineup. "You can put him at short, you can put him in center. That's a hard guy to find, and he's really dependable defensively."
Like Morgan with the Brewers and Giambi with the A's and Yankees, Johnson brings the intangible quality of big-game experience from his time with contenders. That includes the 2011 American League Division Series with the Rays and the 2013 National League Division Series with the Braves, not to mention the regular-season stretch run.
"You learn how to slow the game down, don't try to do more than you're supposed to do, just play it like every other game," Johnson said. "Everybody's into it and you realize there's a lot at stake, but you still don't try to do more than you could because if you do, then you start to make mistakes."
He knows he won't be Cabrera at short, Jason Kipnis at second or Michael Bourn in center. But just Elliot Johnson may be plenty for the role the Indians are looking to fill.
"I think as long as you manage expectations, when you play a number of different spots, you're not really specializing in one location," Johnson said. "For that reason, so long as you're making the routine plays, everybody's happy."