PORT CHARLOTTE — For INF Dan Johnson, showing the Rays he can play third base could play a significant role in him potentially landing on the roster.
Johnson, 30, who came up as a first baseman, said he has gotten more comfortable at third after getting experience at Triple-A Durham in 2008 and with the Yokohama BayStars in Japan last season.
"Japan breaks you in real fast," he said. "They're always slashing, trying to trick you, draw you in and then hit it at you."
Johnson will start at third in today's exhibition opener against the Orioles and could get more opportunities there while Willy Aybar is out with a left wrist injury. Johnson already made a good impression in Tuesday's intrasquad game when he made a diving grab on a liner by touted prospect Desmond Jennings.
Quipped manager Joe Maddon, "D.J. robbed D.J., as it turned out."
The next play, Johnson fielded a sharp grounder and made an accurate throw to first.
"Welcome to the game, huh?" Johnson said, smiling. "It was good to make a couple plays early and break the ice a little bit, as opposed to stand there, not get anything and get into a game and almost be in panic mode."
Johnson has shown plenty of pop in his bat, hitting 24 homers last year in Japan and, of course, the memorable pinch-hit tying homer off Jonathan Papelbon at Fenway in September 2008.
But Johnson realizes that proving he's capable defensively at both corner infield spots could pay off.
"It matters," Maddon said. "Because if he can play first, third and leftfield, which he's worked at, that can really help him down the road, there's no doubt."
SIGNING UP: The Rays had deals with all their pre-arbitration eligible players Tuesday afternoon (and all for less than $500,000) except RHP Andy Sonnanstine. They will either have one or renew him by their deadline of noon today.
FOR STARTERS: RHP James Shields, who will start today's exhibition opener, said he's looking forward to "getting that baseball atmosphere going."
"I feel pretty good," he said. "I'd like to be a little stronger, but that's the way it always is for me every spring training."
BACK IN GROOVE: LHP Jake McGee is slated to throw an inning of relief today, saying he's excited to show what he can do after being fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. "This will be the first time I won't have any restrictions," he said.
McGee said his breaking ball is "shorter and sharper" than the "big and loopy" one he threw before.
MISCELLANY: Angel Chavez's sacrifice fly scored Ryan Shealy for the only run in the 31/2-inning intrasquad game Tuesday. There was a lot of focus on bunt defense and execution between innings, with Maddon saying, "I can't ask for anything more in regards to their focus and their effort."… The regulars in the lineup today include SS Jason Bartlett, C Dioner Navarro, 2B Ben Zobrist, CF B.J. Upton, RF Matt Joyce and C Kelly Shoppach. RHP Jeremy Hellickson will make his spring debut Friday against the Yankees.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.