MIAMI — The Rays dumped opening day 1B Dan Johnson on Friday because he wasn't playing well and, as a result, wasn't playing very often.
They replaced him with OF Justin Ruggiano, who was chosen because of how well he was playing at Triple-A Durham and, in part, because he could best handle playing on a limited basis with the Rays.
The decision to designate Johnson for assignment was a product of his limited production (a .115 average, .346 OPS) and even more limited role. With Casey Kotchman taking over as the primary first baseman, Johnson, a lefty swinger, was limited to starting against left-handed starters and occasional pinch-hitting.
"It just made sense for us to include somebody else that may help us in another way," manager Joe Maddon said.
And the decision to make that Ruggiano, rather than top prospect Desmond Jennings or promising Brandon Guyer (who was up earlier), was based on the plan to have Ruggiano play only a couple of days a week at most; likely spelling slumping LF Sam Fuld against left-handed starters. The Rays prefer Jennings and Guyer to play regularly to continue their development and figure Ruggiano's experience is a plus for this job.
"For this particular role, we felt like Ruggiano was the right choice," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "He was very deserving, and we felt like it made more sense for those other guys to play every day."
Ruggiano, who was taken off the 40-man roster and passed unclaimed through waivers before spring training, was thrilled to get back to the big leagues — then to make his first game appearance since 2008 when he replaced CF B.J. Upton, who left after two innings with tightness in his gluteal muscles (buttocks). He was with the Rays for four days last season but didn't play.
He hit .308 for Durham with six homers, 30 RBIs and 11 steals while cutting down on his strikeouts and posting a .941 OPS against lefties.
"There's satisfaction and a lot of gratitude right now. I'm very grateful for them to bring me back up," said Ruggiano, 28. "I'm excited. It's been a long time for me. I'm not going to lie and say I didn't get emotional (Thursday) night because it just felt like such an uphill battle, and now here we are."
THE DAN BAND: Johnson said by phone he was "kind of numb right now" over the move, understanding of the Rays' decision but mystified how he got himself into that spot.
"It's such a game of inches," he said. "Everybody else's balls started falling, and mine were still being caught. Then I got hit on the wrist and missed some time, and then it just kept snowballing."
Maddon said the Rays hope to keep Johnson in the organization with an assignment to Triple A assuming he clears waivers. That's not automatic but with a $1 million guaranteed salary would seem likely.
Johnson said it was too early to say for certain if he would accept the assignment but indicated he didn't believe the Rays did him wrong and there was "still a good taste" for the organization. Plus if he declined the assignment and became a free agent, he would lose his salary.
UPTON DOWN: Upton felt the tightness during his first at-bat. He said after the game that it was "not bad at all" and possible he could return today. Maddon said he likely wouldn't start but could be used off the bench.
FIRST AT FIRST: Without Johnson, Maddon will consider several options at first when the Rays next face a lefty (likely Monday in Detroit): Sean Rodriguez, Elliot Johnson, Ben Zobrist and, depending on the pitcher, potentially Kotchman.
J.P. DUTY: LHP J.P. Howell made it back to active duty a year and a day since surgery to repair a torn labrum, making his first appearance since Sept. 22, 2009, a gap of 605 days, and working a hitless sixth inning.
Maddon is hoping Howell can return to his 2008-09 form, when he went 13-6, posted a 2.48 ERA and saved 20 games.
Howell said he believes he can be even better.
"Hopefully, I'm the 18-year-old Howell," he said. "I feel a lot better than I have in probably 8-9 years. So I'm excited just to get out there and get this thing moving."
Howell will be used on a limited basis at least initially — probably for no more than four outs in a game and not on back-to-back days.
"I'm definitely not going to push him early on," Maddon said.
RHP Rob Delaney, inconsistent in three appearances, was optioned back to Triple A.
MISCELLANY: In addition to reducing the travel wear and tear, LHP David Price skipped going to Toronto for another reason — to throw his Wednesday bullpen session outside at Al Lang Field to get acclimated to the heat he'll face today. … RF Matt Joyce is the fifth Ray to have two triples in a game and first since Carl Crawford in July 2008.