Johnson has lead in race for first base

Johnson has lead in race for first base

Johnson has lead in race for first base
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Dan Johnson and Casey Kotchman have been battling all spring to see who will be the Rays' first baseman. Surprisingly, Joe Maddon tipped his hand on the competition prior to Saturday's game against the Twins, which was unusual for the Rays manager.

"Right now, just being honest, Johnson has the inside edge," Maddon said. "He's got the inside track."

Johnson, 31, totaled 37 home runs, 118 RBIs and 100 walks in 138 games between the Rays and Triple-A Durham in 2010, earning a number of Minor League honors, including the International League Most Valuable Player Award, a spot on the IL midseason and postseason All-Star teams and the Rays Minor League Player of the Year Award. Johnson has 159 career Minor League home runs.

Johnson, selected from Durham on Aug 3, appeared in 40 games down the stretch for the Rays, including 33 starts, and he came through with seven home runs and 23 RBIs, averaging one homer every 15.9 at-bats and one RBI every 4.8 at-bats. He also walked 25 times in 140 plate appearances, giving him a rate of one walk per 5.60 plate appearances, which ranked fourth among Major Leaguers with 100 or more plate appearances.

The big question with Johnson remains: If he gets an opportunity to play every day, can he contribute Major League numbers anywhere close to the ones he put up at Durham last season?

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"I don't really think I have a good answer [to that question]," Johnson said. "It's one of those things. Production-wise last year, I think I did pretty well at both places. My average was a little low in the Major Leagues, but there was a lot more inconsistent playing. There were days off, a lot more. I don't know how many at-bats I had, but I didn't have many at-bats to homers and RBIs. It was a pretty good pace I was on."

Regardless of which league Johnson plays in, he feels like he will hit.

"I have no doubts what I can do," Johnson said. "It's one of those things where I know this is my opportunity to go out there and really make a big impact."

Johnson's sense of resolve is firmly rooted in the confidence he gained from performing well last season.

"It helped out a lot, confidence-wise," Johnson said. "I really feel like I belong and that I'll be able to contribute and help the team win ballgames. I don't want them to feel like they're taking a step back by putting me out there. I feel like, with fielding and batting, I can go out there and contribute from both sides."

If he doesn't, Kotchman, 28, is right there behind him.

Kotchman, who hit his first homer of the spring on Saturday, a two-run shot in the fourth inning of the Rays' 9-2 loss to the Twins, signed as a Minor League free agent on Jan. 28, so he is not on the 40-man roster, which makes him more of a long shot to earn the job at the start of the season. Nevertheless, Kotchman attacks every day as if he will be the team's first baseman.

"Each and every day you have to compete, no matter what part of your career you're at," Kotchman said. "You're going out there to compete. The pitcher's trying to get you out. That's the way it's been and always has been.

"I haven't analyzed anything. I've just enjoyed going out and putting on a uniform and playing. I have fun playing baseball, and it's been fun wearing this uniform this spring."

Kotchman is one of the best fielding first basemen of his generation, a contention validated by the numbers. He has just nine errors in 4,875 total chances in the Major Leagues, which is good for a career .998 fielding percentage at first base. That happens to be the highest fielding percentage in Major League history among players with at least 500 games played. In addition, he has had some solid offensive seasons as well, like the 2007 season when he hit .296, with 11 home runs and 68 RBIs in 137 games for the Angels, and the 2008 season when he hit a combined .272 with 14 home runs and 74 RBIs in 126 games for the Angels and Braves.

But Kotchman's offensive numbers have dropped the past couple of years (.268/7/48 in 2009 and .217/9/51 in 2010), so he has been working to try and rediscover some of the keys he once possessed for having a quality stroke.

"I think it's been coming along productively," Kotchman said. "I've been trying to apply what Joe [Maddon] and [hitting coach Derek Shelton] Shelty have been trying to implement with me, just trying to be productive and consistent."

To Kotchman's credit, he does not use his pursuit of his old swing as any kind of excuse. When he was asked if it was tough to work on his swing while competing for a job, Kotchman smiled.

"You know, it hasn't been," Kotchman said. "It feels like a pretty seamless transition. I've just been trying to get back to some stuff that was natural before."

Due to the fact the Rays are looking to carry three utility players and they have a solid DH in Manny Ramirez, Maddon conceded that the odds of carrying two first basemen are remote. However, he has enjoyed watching his first-base candidates battle for the job.

"Kotch is doing a great job, and he's making this whole thought process a little more difficult," Maddon said. "But you've got to look at what Danny did for us last year and the last couple of years, and consider that strongly. I think he's swinging the bat well right now. So it's a nice problem for us to have right now, but as I've said from the beginning, Danny's the incumbent."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.