Can Kelly Johnson win the Comeback Player of the Year Award (presented by Viagra)?
Or will he be back in the minor leagues by the first of June?
There is a lot of responsibility being heaped on the shoulders of (the still green) Kelly Johnson. There is the responsibility of learning a new position and being expected to replace the above average defense of Marcus Giles, and the responsibility of being the leadoff hitter for a rebuilt Braves lineup. He will also be facing major league pitching for the first time in well over a year; can his streaky bat survive at the top of a big league lineup?
In many ways Johnson has gotten better as he progressed through the Braves minor league system. In double-A in 03 he hit .275, the next season in double-A he hit .282, and in 05 he hit .310 in triple-A. That earned him a promotion to the majors where he rebounded to eventually hit .241 after initially struggling. Even then, his major league numbers are too small of a sample to be that meaningful, except for one factor; walks. Even while struggling, and even while compiling just a .241 average, Johnson fought his way to a .334 on-base percentage. And that number stands up to what he's done in his minor league career, where he's compiled a .366 OBP while hitting just .281 - which is encouraging for a player whose job it will be to get on base.
I said back in November that I thought Johnson was the player who would get the lion's share of the second base job, and we have since found out that many in the organization think he will be able to handle the job full time. The bigger question is if Johnson continues to be the extremely streaky hitter he was in 05, will the Braves be able to tolerate his ups and downs for an entire season. We know that Cox will do all he can to leave him in the lineup and work on his game, but what effect it will have on the rest of the order is not known.
Perhaps this talk of KJ leading off and being the second baseman is all too premature. Perhaps we're putting too much faith in the abilities of Glenn Hubbard to transform Johnson into a major league second baseman in the span of one off-season. And perhaps we're wrong that he can win the job in spring training where every part of his game will be under intense scrutiny - hitting and defense.