Healthy Johnson returns to different role

Johnson returns to different role

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Reed Johnson only knows how to go full bore. It's that kind of mentality that pulled the Blue Jays outfielder into a state of denial after coming back from a serious back injury last season.

Johnson didn't look the same on the field, but he'd always shake off suggestions that he wasn't completely recovered. On Friday, Johnson finally allowed himself to admit that there were indeed issues following his return.

Perhaps the fact that he's feeling great this spring helped Johnson realize how far he's come.

"I'd like to say that I was 100 percent last year," Johnson said. "But I kind of tried to ignore any type of pain I was feeling when I did come back. The reality is it was there, and I've had the opportunity in the last three months to rehab and to try to shore up those strength problems."

Johnson is training as if a full-time job awaits him on Opening Day, but the reality is that the Blue Jays plan on putting him in a left-field platoon with veteran Matt Stairs. When Toronto signed shortstop David Eckstein over the winter, Johnson also lost his role as the club's primary leadoff hitter.

Frustration would seem understandable for Johnson, who has been in the Toronto organization for the entirety of his professional career. Instead, the 31-year-old Johnson shrugs off his diminished role, knowing that he's made the most of similar situations during his tenure with the Jays.

"The main situation for me this year is to not have a whole lot of expectations as far as how much I'm going to play," Johnson said. "It's not like this is an unfamiliar situation for me. I've been platooning here for my whole career, basically. So it's something I'm familiar with and I'm ready to take on whatever role is cast in my direction.

"I've spent a couple years here worrying about how much I'm going to play. I know that my role here in this organization, with this team, is that I'm going to have to be that guy that's basically ready to play on an everyday basis, if they need me."

Johnson is no stranger to being on the short end of a platoon, but he separated himself from that status two seasons ago. In 2006, Johnson won the regular job in left field and finished with a team-high .319 average, a career-high 12 home runs and a .390 on-base percentage, which ranked first among American League leadoff men.

He entered the 2007 campaign in the same role, but he was sidelined in April after playing in just seven games. On April 17, Johnson underwent an operation to repair a herniated disc in his lower back -- a procedure that kept him out of game action until just before the All-Star break in July.

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After his return, Johnson didn't look as comfortable when running, and the extended period of rest took a significant toll on his hitting. In the 72 games Johnson played after coming back, he batted just .232 with one homer, seven RBIs and a .302 on-base percentage.

When the offseason arrived -- finally putting an end to Johnson's forgettable season -- there were rumblings that Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi might consider parting ways with the left fielder. Johnson is a free agent after 2008, and Toronto has young outfielders Adam Lind and Travis Snider waiting in the wings.

Johnson said he didn't concern himself with the rumors, and even though the team never told him as much, he fully expected to be back with the Jays for '08. His prediction came true in January, when he avoided arbitration by signing a one-year contract worth $3.275 million.

"I was supposed to be traded three or four years in a row," Johnson said with a laugh. "You really can't spend your time worrying about that. All I can really do is, when I get my opportunity to play, is put up some numbers."

Over the winter, Johnson put in the work. At his home in Las Vegas, he returned to his rigorous workout routine, waking up at 4 a.m. and training for hours on end. Johnson focused his attention on regaining the strength in his legs, with the hope of being able to run as well or better than he had in the past.

"When I'm running out there," Johnson said, "I feel like I'm floating a little bit easier than I was even before the surgery."

It's still early in Spring Training, but Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said he's already noticed a difference in how Johnson has been moving around on the field.

"We saw where he tailed off at the end of last year and was banged up," Gibbons said. "We figured having a good winter, he could take it easy and get back on his program and that he'd come to camp and look like the old guy. You never really know for sure, but that's the guy I've seen.

"You look at him, there's really nothing he can't do naturally like he's always done. That's a good sign, because Reed's done a lot of good things for us. Last year, he just wasn't healthy. He's very valuable with what he can do at the plate. He makes things happen."

Johnson used to do that while occupying the first spot in Toronto's lineup. Now, with Eckstein in the fold, it's not clear where exactly Johnson will fit within the batting order. Gibbons has floated the idea of using Stairs and Johnson in the second slot of the lineup.

Even if the Jays hadn't added Eckstein, Johnson said he wasn't sure he was a lock to be Toronto's table-setter.

"I don't know if I was going to be that guy or not," he said. "I really don't know. I wasn't really in that role last year too much when I came back from surgery. I obviously would've liked to play more, but I think it was probably a wise decision from a management standpoint.

"I'm not frustrated. We're trying to make our team better. Any time J.P. has an opportunity to make an upgrade at a spot, he's going to do that. He's basically made an upgrade at the leadoff spot, and that's the decision that they've gone with. I'm going to do my best to fill in wherever they want me."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.