When the Braves non-tendered Marcus Giles in January, they did so knowing they had a number of internal options to be the potential replacement. That was the only way they were able to free themselves of the arbitration-eligible veteran second baseman.
Martin Prado was believed to be the top candidate. He got two cups of coffee with the Braves last season and made a positive impression on Manager Bobby Cox. Prado's .299 career minor league average also helped his cause. But a forgotten player in the minds of many Braves' fans quickly because a viable option.
Kelly Johnson missed all of last season with elbow trouble, which resulted in him having Tommy John surgery in June. Johnson was drafted as a shortstop in 2000, so he's a natural infielder. And the Braves started to wonder if he could be a second baseman.
When Johnson was coming up through the minors, many believed he had the ability to be a super-utility man. After his years as a shortstop, the Braves moved him to third base and then subsequently the outfield. But some coaches had always wondered if he was best suited for second base.
He played there a bit in spring training in 2005, just in batting practice. The minor league coaches liked what they saw: a kid with good size that could handle just about any position on the diamond. Johnson didn't look uncomfortable at second base, which was a good sign.
But at that point his main focus was still on the outfield. Johnson himself would tell you privately that he might turn into a Ryan Freel one day, and playing around at second base just supported that theory. As the 2005 season began he was still in the outfield, and in May he would make his big league debut and see pretty decent playing time in left field for the big league club.
The elbow problems popped up last spring and Johnson was just unable to avoid the surgery. So his outfield career was placed on hold. Then when the possibility of Giles being let go became a reality, the Braves started to remember Johnson as a second baseman.
It was worth throwing him to the Glenn Hubbard School of Second Basemen. Marcus Giles graduated from there a few years ago. Remember, Giles was mainly an outfielder in Junior College, but Braves' Scout Al Kubski thought he could turn into a second baseman. Kubski knew the Braves had a history of short second basemen, with Hubbard and then Mark Lemke in the 90s. So he thought Giles would fit right in.
Hubbard worked with Giles diligently in Macon during the 1998 season. He made Marcus Giles a second baseman, and a good one. So the Braves hoped ‘Hubby' could do the same thing with Kelly Johnson.
When a kid has natural athletic ability, as Johnson has, you have a chance to do something as drastic as making him a second baseman. It's not an easy transition, but Johnson started working with Hubbard in November. At first, the Braves were a little concerned that Johnson's elbow would not be ready for Opening Day, which could slow down his education of second base. But then the elbow started to get better.
January rolled around and General Manager John Schuerholz would look out his window at Turner Field and watch Hubbard work with Johnson, who looked better every day he was out there. That cinched the decision to go ahead and non-tender Giles, which saved the team some money for an already-strapped payroll.
Now Johnson has made enough progress that he's been labeled the favorite to win the second base job. He still has to play in the games, which will be a big test for him. But the Braves are confident enough in Johnson that you no longer hear Martin Prado's name mentioned very loudly. The Braves want Johnson to win the job, and that means he probably will.
Remember that Bobby Cox fell in love with Kelly's bat when Johnson first came up to the big leagues in 2005. He was patient with Johnson, even after he started slow. Cox believed Johnson had a great swing, and he still remembers that. With the Braves needing a leadoff man, Cox believes they could do a lot worse than sticking Kelly Johnson in that spot.
Johnson won't be your typical leadoff man, since he has only average speed. He's a good base runner though, and will be smart on the base paths. He's also patient enough to where he'll draw a walk, which will help set the table for the Braves' big bats in the middle of the lineup.
The offensive potential Johnson has is a big reason the Braves want him to win the job. They are confident the kid is going to hit, and if he can be at least an average defensive second baseman, the team feels they'll be in good shape. Johnson has excellent makeup, and the Braves believe he's ready to be an everyday player.
If Johnson struggles in March or gives the Braves reason to worry, Prado will again be an option. But he'll have to have an excellent month of March to even be considered. The Braves like Prado, but they're not convinced he can be an everyday player in the big leagues. Some think he can, while others aren't so sure. A strong March could cure those concerns.
Willy Aybar is not even in camp yet. His visa problems have delayed his spring debut, which hurts his chances of even getting a look at second base. He's played there in the past, but the Braves now believe he's best suited to be Chipper Jones' insurance policy at third base.
One wildcard is Yunel Escobar, a natural shortstop who can also play second base. Escobar made a great impression in October winning the batting title in the Arizona Fall League. He's come to camp with a great attitude and Cox has made several positive comments about him. So Escobar should not be forgotten as an option.
But the club's intentions are clear: they want Johnson to win the job. He would have to either really look bad at second base in March or struggle mightily with the bat to lose the job. It's his to lose, and there's no reason to think he's going to do that. The Braves feel confident Johnson will be able to adequately replace Marcus Giles as the second baseman.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Position Battle: Second Base
Atlanta Dugout Top Stories
Dustin Peterson's improvement continuesWho has likely been the player of the year in the Braves' farm system? Most likely Dustin Peterson in Mississippi.
Adonis Garcia giving Atlanta options at 3BBill Shanks has some impressive numbers on Adonis Garcia, who is giving the Braves options for third base for the future.
New Review: Gwinnett BravesDoes having your Triple A affiliate in close proximity reinforce the team brand and help attendance, or will the parent club cannibalize ticket sales and hurt attendance figures?…
Stadium JourneyWednesday at 5:56 AM
Braves get two prospects for CervenkaThe Braves have added two more young players with the trade of reliever Hunter Cervenka to Miami.