Clean slate has Johnson revved up
Second baseman eyes rebound after disappointing '09
PHOENIX -- Josh Byrnes got the list of non-tendered players at 10 p.m. Arizona time on Dec. 12.
The D-backs general manager arose early the morning and the first call he made was to the agent for second baseman Kelly Johnson, who had shown up on the list the night before and was now a free agent.
"I think he knew we were sincere through our actions," Byrnes said.
Truth be told, the D-backs' interest in Johnson started years before, when they tried to acquire him in 2006. In fact, Byrnes liked Johnson long before that.
"I started with him when he was in high school," Byrnes said. "He was a top pick out of high school, he's always hit and we watched him through the Minors."
Johnson spent the 2007 and 2008 seasons tearing up National League pitching for the Braves, compiling OPS marks (on-base plus slugging) of .831 and .795.
A nagging wrist injury contributed to a 2009 that was disappointing for Johnson as he slumped to .224 and was supplanted at second base by rising prospect Martin Prado.
That did nothing to dampen Arizona's interest.
"If anything, we were probably intensifying our scouting efforts at that point just to watch and see if there's anything wrong," Byrnes said. "But we just felt like he had a down year so we were happy to get him."
For his part, Johnson is pleased to have a fresh start.
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One way that Johnson is a perfect fit for the D-backs is that, like the organization, he would just as soon forget about 2009.
"I don't want to talk about last year," he said when asked about what might have contributed to his struggles. "I just spent a lot of time swinging the bat this offseason. Just trying to find the sweet spot of the barrel as often as possible. I'm just trying to keep it simple. Everybody has the tendency to make it hard especially when you're going real bad, you start over thinking everything. I just want to keep it simple and when you're not feeling good, just move forward."
So far at least, the D-backs have liked what they've seen from him at the plate.
"It's looked solid all spring," Byrnes said. "He has a good idea of the strike zone, he hits the ball hard to all fields, he hits lefties and righties and his swing just looks very solid."
Hitting coach Jack Howell said he's worked with Johnson on not getting too far on his back side at the plate nor too much on his front.
"He wants to be at that middle point," Howell said. "So we've just done repetition after repetition. It's knowing what he wants to be as a hitter and trying to find that comfort zone. That's the main thing."
First baseman Adam LaRoche, who played with Johnson during two stints in Atlanta, thinks Johnson is in the perfect position.
"This is his first change of scenery, so it's almost like his rookie year again and having a clean slate," LaRoche said. "This will be good for him. This will be a chance for him to really put it together over a full season and see what he's capable of. I think everyone has always known he could do it, but he hasn't really been in the right spot to play every day. There's something to be said for coming into camp and knowing you're the guy and the organization is confident in you."
Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.