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Tampa Bay Rays' Elliot Johnson trying to create new image with versatility

PORT CHARLOTTE

Rays infielder Elliot Johnson said it'll happen fairly often. He'll introduce himself to somebody around town and be surprised by the response. "They'll say, 'Oh, you're the guy that hit that catcher,' " Johnson said. "They don't know me as Elliot Johnson. I'm still not Elliot Johnson yet. I'm that guy." That guy may have made New York tabloid headlines last spring with a home-plate collision with Yankees catching prospect Francisco Cervelli, a hard baseball play that eventually led to a brawl and served as a key moment in the Rays coming together.

But Johnson, 25, also won a spot on the opening day roster last season with one of the best springs in club history, replacing Ben Zobrist (broken left thumb). And as Johnson wants to make a different name for himself on the field, he's willing to play different positions and be groomed as another Rays utilityman.

Manager Joe Maddon said that with several young starters set at their positions, he'd like to nurture that kind of versatile player instead of pigeonholing a prospect into one spot. Willy Aybar turned a bench role into a two-year contract. Zobrist made a huge impact last season being a jack-of-all-trades.

And Maddon feels Johnson fits the bill perfectly, one capable of stepping in for Zobrist if need be.

"He's a live-body guy, he's got a great arm," Maddon said. "You see him in the outfield, how easily he gets after the ball, as well as he's a switch-hitter. He's a very interesting utility guy to me. I feel good with him at first, second, he can play short, third and all three (outfield spots). Easily. And I would have no qualm putting him at any position, athletically speaking."

Johnson has played all over the field this spring and has handled the transition well, though he admits third base has been the toughest to adjust to. The switch-hitter has also performed well at the plate (.316 average, two homers, five RBIs). But he also has eight strikeouts, with Maddon saying his contact rate is "probably the reason why he's not the regular position player you're looking for yet."

"But athletically speaking, I'm seeing better base­running, I'm seeing more comfort, more of a sense of belonging," Maddon said. "He feels like he should be here now, and that's all good."

Johnson, whose primary position is second base, said he welcomes the chance to play several spots. The Safford, Ariz., native started five games for the Rays last season (two at short, one at second, one in centerfield, one in rightfield). But after hitting .158 (3-for-19) Johnson was optioned back to Durham, where he spent his second season with the Bulls.

"If I had played better, I would have been back up, that's the bottom line," Johnson said. "Aki (Iwamura) never got hurt, so they never needed me to come."

But with Johnson increasing his versatility, the need for a player like him could occur more often, with the Rays and around the league.

"When you have a 12-man pitching staff on a 25-man roster, I love the idea that one guy among your players can do a lot of different things," Maddon said. "And I think that's going to become a more pertinent part of major-league baseball."

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

Tampa Bay Rays' Elliot Johnson trying to create new image with versatility 03/08/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 9, 2009 7:58am]

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