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Rays ask for a new versatility from Kelly Johnson

Kelly Johnson, left, jogging with Evan Longoria, is coming off a down season, though he still managed to hit 16 home runs.
Kelly Johnson, left, jogging with Evan Longoria, is coming off a down season, though he still managed to hit 16 home runs.
Published Feb. 25, 2013

PORT CHARLOTTE — After spending the past half-dozen years as an everyday second baseman for the Braves, Diamondbacks and Blue Jays, Kelly Johnson didn't see any reason for change.

Except that his normal numbers weren't there last season.

And then the usual opportunity wasn't there during the offseason.

All of which is how Johnson, 31, ended up signing with the Rays.

And why, after a concession he was reluctant to make, he has his outfield glove handy and is getting familiar with a first baseman's mitt.

"You hope to find a place that can see your talent and see your abilities and they think they can get the most out of you, and that's where you want to go. And that's where I'm at right now," Johnson said.

"I'm very happy where I'm at. I'm going to find a positive. I'm not going to be a negative person. This is a positive for me. Whatever opportunities I'm able to get out there, whatever positions, it's fine with me."

If it sounds as if there were at least some initial hesitancy to shift from everyday regular to a player, to put it politely, of increased versatility and utility, Rays manager Joe Maddon understands. He has seen it, and heard it, from other players at similar stages of their careers as Johnson, who remained on the free-agent market until February and took a sizable pay cut, from $6.375 million in 2012 (and $5.85 million in 2011) to $2.45 million.

"I think other groups have asked him to (try other positions) in the past, and I think with a lot of guys that right moment finally arrives and they realize that might actually be a good thing for them," Maddon said.

"It's good for him, it's good for us. You never know, season in progress, he might nail down one spot and he might stay there. I don't know that. But going into spring training and the season, the idea is to use him at second base, first base and leftfield primarily, and utilize his bat that way."

The bat is the appeal, as Johnson hit 26 homers in 2010 for Arizona, 21 in 2011 while being traded to Toronto and even 16 last year in what otherwise was a down year, with a .225 average and a career-worst .678 on-base plus slugging percentage.

Johnson is confident, as are the Rays, that he can again be more productive.

And just maybe that the position change could help.

After all, he has made some unexpected moves before.

He was a 2000 sandwich-round draft pick by the Braves as a shortstop, got moved to the outfield at Double A and did well enough to make it to the majors. Then, after missing a season due to reconstructive elbow surgery got shifted unexpectedly to second base, where he had to learn the position on the job, and behind Atlanta's demanding veteran pitching staff.

"I never played second, so it took a long time for me to even get remotely comfortable," he said. "It really took more like three years or so of playing every day to even feel like I didn't have a little bit of that 'please don't hit it to me' feeling. …

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"I think playing a little scared and being a little uncomfortable ended up being a good thing. It took me some time to get over that. Now I feel like I am a second baseman."

The Rays, now, want him to be more than that. He has already taken fly balls in left but, candidly, is a bit unsure about first base.

He insists that he will be open-minded. "It's going to be fun," he said. "I'm excited about it."

Also, realistic.

"I want to fit in," Johnson said. "I want to be a part of something special and win. That's what they ask and that's what I'll do. I'm not in position and be like (Texas') Ian Kinsler and demand that I stay. I understand that. It's not a problem.

"If I can help win a game, I'm all for it."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com.

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