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Out of options, Tampa Bay Rays Elliot Johnson doesn't know where to go

Elliot Johnson, out of options, must be put on waivers before the Rays can send him to Durham.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Elliot Johnson, out of options, must be put on waivers before the Rays can send him to Durham.

PORT CHARLOTTE — For the past three years, Elliot Johnson knew he'd likely be in one of two places at the end of Rays spring training: Durham, N.C., or St. Petersburg.

Johnson, 26, is typically on the fringe during roster cuts, an athletic utility player who has had brief stints in the big leagues but spent most of the past three seasons in Triple A. He and his wife, Nicole, built a house in Durham two years ago and had their first child, Blake, in November.

But with Johnson out of minor-league options, he can't be sent down without first going through waivers and, possibly, getting claimed by one of the other 29 teams.

So instead of landing in one of two places, Johnson said, "It could be 60 places."

"My wife and I talk about it every day. 'Where are we going to be? Where do you think we're going to be?' " Johnson said. "You never know."

This is the life of uncertainty for players without options.

Once a player is put on the 40-man roster, he has three options (four under some circumstances) to be sent to the minors, each covering the full season. So it doesn't matter how often he is sent up and down each season.

Johnson, who has been with the organization since he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2002, would love to stay here. And Rays manager Joe Maddon doesn't want to lose Johnson, a switch-hitter who boasts the kind of versatility the club covets.

But Johnson, scheduled to start in rightfield today, is unlikely to make the team, though he will likely be here until the end as the Rays could try to trade him or pass him through waivers.

"This is one of the best teams in all of baseball, so it makes it a little harder for a guy who is a marginal player to stick," Johnson said. "Then we've got the guys coming up that are as good as they are. It's one of those things where if I can't fit on this team, there's going to be a stronger chance I can fit on some other team."

While Johnson said he tries not to stress about it, the situation can impact the mind-set of players. Just ask right-hander Jeff Niemann.

Niemann was out of options last spring and had to wait until the final day of camp to find out if he earned the fifth starter spot. While Niemann went on to have a great rookie season, leading the staff with 13 wins, he admitted it made for an uneasy spring.

"It was crazy," he said. "You're analyzing every pitch, every inning, every hitter, every at-bat. You're trying to do your best but at the same time trying to relax and get better and at the same time trying new things. It's a fine line between trying to grow as a player and solidifying your spot on a team."

Niemann, 27, remembers sitting in the cafeteria of the Rays' minor-league clubhouse on the final day of camp with fellow right-hander Jason Hammel. Both out of options and competing for the same job, one knew he'd be flying to Boston that night to meet the Rays for opening day. The other could be traded, could be going home, who knew?

Niemann said they sat at a table and pointed to different states on a Starbucks cup, wondering where they'd land.

In the end, Niemann headed to Boston while Hammel was traded to Colorado.

"I had no idea," Niemann said. "I think it was more wear and tear on my family and people trying to figure what the (heck) is going on. But I made it through, survived, and am stronger for it."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Out of options, Tampa Bay Rays Elliot Johnson doesn't know where to go 03/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 25, 2010 9:39pm]
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