Johnson ready for (almost) anything

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
5:14
PM ET
TAMPA, Fla. – Kelly Johnson says he once went two weeks before fielding a grounder at second base after being thrown into the position cold by the Atlanta Braves at the start of the 2007 season.

So it should come as no source of alarm that in his first game at third base for the Yankees, Johnson did not have a ball hit to him in their preseason opener on Tuesday, nor should that come as much of a surprise since Johnson played only the first two innings of the Yankees' 8-3 victory over Florida State at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

But if Johnson had had his way, the first ball of the game would have been hit right at him, followed by as many as possible thereafter.

“I like to get it out of the way right at the beginning," he said.

As one of just three regulars in the Yankees' starting lineup -- Brett Gardner and Francisco Cervelli were the others -- Johnson made what amounted to a cameo appearance. He struck out looking in his only at-bat. But he will be getting plenty more chances throughout spring training, since Joe Girardi has him penciled in as not only the left-handed half of his third-base platoon, but also the backup infielder for the other three positions.

That means that not only is he expected to replace Alex Rodriguez on a semi-regular basis, but also Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and the ghost of Robinson Cano, as necessary.

That, said Johnson, suited him fine.

“When you’re an infielder, when you play baseball, you’ve got an eye on other positions. You kind of know," he said. “It’s not like you’re just completely fresh and new.”

No, that happened in 2005, when the kid drafted as a shortstop was converted to a left fielder, and in 2007, when he was moved to second, and to some extent last season, when the Tampa Bay Rays used him in 16 games at third base to spell Evan Longoria.

That is his only major league experience at the position the Yankees now expect him to play on a regular basis. Before that, Johnson said, his time at third amounted to “just a handful of games" in high school.

In some respects, a lot of the Yankees' work was done for them last year. “I did have one of the best teammates you could possibly ask for last year when I first came over there with Longoria," Johnson said. “I was all in his ear constantly. There’s not a lot that can play the position better than him, so there were certainly some things that I can remember him talking about. You take what you can from guys that have experience."

In Yankees camp, Johnson has been working with Mick Kelleher and Willie Randolph to sharpen his corner infield skills. “This is more just building repetitions," he said. “Preparing. That’s the way I look at it. This is nothing compared to when I had to move to second, to me, in the beginning of my career. This to me is more about getting the information, getting my legs under me, and getting the repetition and the muscle memory.”

The Yankees aren’t as concerned about Johnson’s bat; he hit 16 home runs in 366 at-bats for the Rays last season, a better ratio than A-Rod had (18 in 463) in 2012, his last full season for the Yankees. And the hope is that Yankee Stadium’s homer-friendly right-field fence will be a good match for Johnson’s left-handed swing.

And his lifetime splits -- his batting average against left-handed pitching (.276) is actually 32 points higher than his average against righties -- indicates that at some point, the third base job could wind up being his no matter who is pitching.

“He gives us a lot of different options out there," Girardi said.

But there is a limit to Johnson’s versatility. What position he would not be comfortable playing?

“Catcher," he said, laughing. “Don’t even ask me."
Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Masahiro Tanaka
WINS ERA SO IP
12 2.51 135 129
OTHER LEADERS
BAJ. Ellsbury .274
HRM. Teixeira 20
RBIM. Teixeira 53
RB. Gardner 76
OPSB. Gardner .792
ERAM. Tanaka 2.51
SOM. Tanaka 135