When the Braves drafted Kelly Johnson in the supplemental first round of the 2000 draft, they knew he was going to be a hitter. One of the Braves’ scouts in Texas, John Flannery, made a habit out of driving by Johnson’s high school when the lefty hitter would take batting practice.
”He just had a sweet swing,” Flannery said. “He was always at the ballpark. I didn’t know what position he’d end up playing, but I thought he was going to be one of those guys that when he got to the big leagues would be a .300-plus hitter and hit 20 home runs consistently.”
Johnson showed that offensive potential right off the bat. He hit .289 in Macon in 2001 with 23 home runs and 66 runs batted in. Even as that offensive potential continued throughout the minor leagues, Johnson was bounced around in the field. He started out as a shortstop, his natural position, and then played a bit at third before making his big league debut as an outfielder two summers ago.
All along, Johnson preferred the infield, but he played where his team needed him the most.
”You feel more like an athlete playing the infield,” Johnson said. “You’re always moving and you’re always going. You get in the outfield and you get a little complacent standing around sometimes. I like to be moving, and that’s what you’re doing there. You’re moving around and get to move your feet. It’s just more of an athletic position.”
Yes, Johnson had 45 errors as a shortstop in Macon. But he wasn’t moved around because he was bad at those positions. The Braves were simply trying to find the right spot for him so he could stick in the lineup.
Now the opportunity has finally knocked. With Marcus Giles non-tendered last month, the Braves have an opening at second base. And Kelly Johnson might finally have found the perfect position.
”It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been in the infield, but I don’t think I’m too far removed,” Johnson said. “That’s where I was my whole life. So I’m feeling good.”
Johnson hasn’t played second base since his freshman year in high school on the junior varsity squad. He took ground balls a bit in spring training of 2005, and then again last summer before having elbow surgery. So now he’s taking a crash course three times a week at Turner Field under the tutelage of Braves’ first base coach Glenn Hubbard, one of the best second basemen in Atlanta history.
”I think I couldn’t ask for anybody better than Glenn Hubbard to help,” Johnson said. “I think he’s made a huge difference. He is the most positive infield instructor I’ve ever been around. ‘Everything’s great’ and ‘you’re looking good’ and ‘you can do it.’ That’s what you need to hear when you’re making a move like this. You need those positives and encouragements. He’s honestly the best coach I could imagine have working with me.”
It was Hubbard who took Marcus Giles under his wing nine years ago in Macon and made Giles a second baseman. He had mainly been an outfielder in junior college, but Giles worked relentlessly with Hubbard to pick up the fine points of playing second. The end result was Giles becoming one of the top defensive second basemen in the National League for several years.”
”He’s helped a lot of people,” Johnson said. “It’s not like everybody comes into pro baseball as a dynamite infielder. I’m sure (Rafael) Furcal had his struggles. Hubby had a hand in almost all of them. He’s been awesome. He has not had to do what he’s done to help me and come out, and every time I’ve asked him he’s made the effort to come out. I owe a lot to him for just being there.”
Hubbard has been working with Johnson about every single aspect of second base, including footwork, position of his hands, the double play pivot, and the simple mechanics of the position. Some things have come easier than others, but Johnson said turning the double play from second has not been difficult.
”Not over the bag,” Johnson explained. “I caught onto that real quick, and we work more on my side of the turn more than anything. That’s the hardest part, and that’s the part that’s going to just take experience and getting the balls off the bat and everything else. That’s what spring training will be for.”
And when spring training starts in less than a month, the Braves are expecting Johnson to be the leading candidate for the opening at second base. Sure, Martin Prado, Willy Aybar, and Yunel Escobar will also get a look, but the Braves are somewhat hopeful Johnson can win the job.
He’s the favorite right now, based on the positives signs so far in his work with Hubbard. And that’s why when General Manager John Schuerholz talks about second base, Johnson’s name comes up first.
“Kelly Johnson is a young man who we think offensively, with no doubt, can help our ball club and perhaps even serve as the leadoff hitter,” Schuerholz said on Friday. “He’s got to show that he can be our second baseman. We think that he can. Kelly’s been out here working everyday with Hubby, and we feel real good about that.”
”You want to have those people that make those decisions have belief in you and trust you and have the confidence in you,” Johnson said. “Just to hear things, whether it’s true or direct or subtle or however it is nice just to know that they’re still thinking about you.”
One person definitely thinking about Johnson a lot these days is Atlanta’s hitting coach, Terry Pendleton. With Giles gone, the Braves are not only looking to replace him in the field, but also at the top of the lineup. Pendleton believes Johnson has a good chance at being successful in the top spot.
”Kelly can fit in good with our offense because he’s going to hit a few home runs,” Pendleton said, “but the biggest thing to him is his on base percentage will be good because he’s got a great eye at the plate. He takes a lot of pitches and makes pitchers throw strikes. When you take a lot of pitches they have a tendency to walk you or they have a tendency to make a mistake with you. When they make a mistake with you, he’s the type that can hurt you. So I think he’s going to be a plus for us in the leadoff spot.”
Before Johnson wins the second base and leadoff roles, he must prove this spring that his surgically repaired elbow is healthy. Johnson had Tommy John surgery last summer, and since the recovery time for a position player is must shorter than a pitcher, he feels confident he’ll be ready to break camp and be on the Opening Day roster.
”Everything feels great,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better. Everybody that pulls on it and tugs on it is pretty impressed by the lack of scar tissue that has built up. It feels good. I can extend it well and bend it well and throw, so I’m on pace to be there. It’s not 100%, and they say it usually takes a year, but I can do my part to take the time and do all the exercises and have it ready.”
The Braves are counting on it. The right side of the infield and the lineup is going to have a different look in 2007, and Kelly Johnson is finally going to get his chance to make a mark on this team – even if it’s his fourth position in seven years.
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Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.