ST. PETERSBURG — For infielder Elliot Johnson, it appears his time has finally arrived.
Johnson, 26, has spent his entire nine-year pro career within the Rays organization, with three hits in 19 big-league at-bats (all in 2008). He has ridden buses during minor-league stints in Princeton, Charleston (S.C.), Visalia (Calif.) and Durham (N.C.), where he has played the past four seasons and built a house for his wife, Nicole, and 13-month-old son, Blake.
But after a breakout season with the Bulls last year, Johnson likely will make the opening-day roster and have a home with the Rays.
After SS Jason Bartlett was traded to the Padres, Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said Johnson is expected to get some time at shortstop — with Reid Brignac getting the most— and be a utility man. As a switch-hitter who can play several positions and steal bases, Johnson boasts the type of versatility manager Joe Maddon covets for his bench. After a year in which Johnson was put on waivers and lingered in limbo, he knows nothing is set in stone. But he's pumped for the possibility.
"I'm as excited as you can possibly be," Johnson said. "On a scale of 1 to 10, I'm a 10."
Rays fans likely remember Johnson for his home-plate collision against the Yankees in a spring training game in 2008 that eventually sparked a brawl and played a role in Tampa Bay coming together during its improbable World Series run.
But having appeared in just seven big-league games, Johnson is eager to play a more tangible role on the field. To get back to the majors, he reinvented himself into a utility man who played four positions (shortstop, second base, leftfield and rightfield).
In 2010, Johnson improved at the plate, hitting .319 with 11 homers. He also had 30 steals, earned Durham MVP honors and was a Triple-A All-Star.
"We call him a 'Mini Zobrist,' " said Triple-A manager Charlie Montoyo, referring to Rays All-Star Ben Zobrist. "He can play everything. The one thing about him is, he's got speed. He's got occasional power. … If you remember, Zobrist, when he was at Durham, he didn't hit for that much power. You could tell he had power but not the way he showed in the big leagues. That could happen to Elliot."
However, what Montoyo believes "turned the page" for Johnson, and enhanced his path to the majors, was his ability to play shortstop. With Brignac up with the Rays last year, Johnson played 64 games at short at Durham. Johnson, who has an outfielder's arm, impressed Montoyo with his range.
"He could play short everyday," Montoyo said. "The best thing I can say about him is that he can be playing rightfield in a one-run game, and I can bring him in the game in the ninth inning to play shortstop for the last three outs."
Johnson knows there's still room to improve — he made 11 errors at short — but he's comfortable and confident there.
"I'm not necessarily the best shortstop in the world; we're not going to say I'm Omar Vizquel," he said. "But I'm really good at ranging left and right, and I love playing up the middle of the field."
And this spring, Johnson will get his shot.
RAYS RUMBLINGS: CF B.J. Upton will host a charity bowling event Jan. 24 at Tampa's Splitsville to benefit the Society of St. Vincent de Paul with David Price, Brignac and brother Justin Upton among the early players committing; sign-up information is available online at mcgticketing.com/uptonbowling. … Another spring invitee is likely to be RHP Ricky Orta, a former Mariners prospect who missed the 2010 season recovering from elbow ligament replacement surgery. … Hall of Fame voting results will be announced Wednesday.
Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]