Something that immediately stood out after the Rays signed Kelly Johnson was the news that Johnson would play all of the field while Ben Zobrist would see a lot of time at second base. It was pretty obvious why that was the case. Zobrist has been a super-utility player his entire career, playing 45 or more games at right field, second base, and shortstop in 2012 (the first player in since 1900 to play 25 or more games at those three positions in the same season) and seeing time at every position on the field other than pitcher and catcher over the course of his career. He’s a great defender at second base, but he’s just as valuable in right field and is capable wherever you put him on the baseball diamond. Why would the Rays primarily entrench him at second base? And what about Johnson? As a rookie for the Atlanta Braves in 2005, he appeared in 79 games in left field. Since then, he has appeared in 787 MLB games in the field, every single one at second base. Why would the Rays suddenly want him to move around?
The answer to that is that the Rays want the best defense they could possibly get all over the field. Zobrist is a clearly well above-average defender at second base, managing a 17.8 career UZR and a 11.0 UZR/150 in 343 games at the position, and he certainly passes the eye test as well, using his good range and outstanding arm strength to make plays almost no other second baseman could make look easy. Johnson, meanwhile, has played second base basically his entire career, but he had not been very good, managing a -9.5 career UZR and -1.9 career UZR/150, which is basically average. It’s a small sample size and it happened 8 years ago, but Johnson was actually excellent in his one half-season in left field, managing a 10.9 UZR in 648.1 innings. Why not give him another chance there and see what he can do? Worst-case scenario, Johnson is about an average defender in left field, which is what he is at second base, and the upside is a potential above-average defensive player. The Rays have nothing to lose giving him another chance in left field on a regular basis.
But wait a second? If Johnson is playing a super-utility role, he’s not just going to play left field and second base. Can he handle third base when Evan Longoria plays designated hitter or gets a day off? Can he move to first base against left-handed pitching to spell James Loney, who can’t hit them at all? Is he capable enough at shortstop, right field, and centerfield to play them in a pinch? Why wouldn’t the Rays just keep Johnson at second base, maybe having him play a spattering of left field, and just keep both him and Zobrist in the roles that they’re used to?
The truth is that while you wouldn’t see it in his major league stats, playing all over the field is actually something Kelly Johnson has done before. Despite being a second baseman in the major leagues, Johnson didn’t ever play the position in the minor leagues other than an 11-game rehab stint in 2009, when he was already an established big league player. Instead, Johnson was primarily a shortstop and also saw time at third base and all three outfield positions. In 2005 before he cracked the major leagues for instance, Johnson played 18 games at left field, 12 each at centerfield and right field, 4 at third base, and also 1 at shortstop (he had been moved off the position the previous year). Johnson is going to have to get used to playing those positions again, but it’s something he was able to do in the past and you know that the Rays will work hard with him in spring training to restore that level of comfort at all those different positions.
Over the course of 2013, the Rays are going to have to figure out which positions Johnson can play and which he can’t and then where they should align him in order to give them the best possible defensive output. But it’s something Johnson is not just open to but excited about, and with enough work, he should be perfectly capable of filling a super-utility role. Maybe the Rays go back on the strategy they seem to be going through with now and place Johnson at second base with Zobrist seeing most of his time in the outfield. But based on his previous history of playing a utility role in the minor leagues, it’s certainly worth a shot for the Rays to work with Kelly Johnson to play various positions, and by the end the season, there’s a pretty good chance that Rays fans will forget that playing a super-utility role isn’t something that Johnson did previously in the major leagues.