SARASOTA, Fla. — More than a decade after he broke into the major leagues, first baseman Nick Johnson has little doubt that he can still hit a baseball.
That part of the game has never been a problem for Johnson, signed by the Orioles to a minor league deal a week before spring training began here at the Ed Smith Stadium complex.
Staying on the field has.
Coming up with the New York Yankees in 2001, Johnson was seen as one of the most promising hitters in the game, but injuries often stepped in the way of potential.
When he has been healthy, he has often been steady — a patient hitter who can frustrate pitchers and bolster any lineup. But Johnson has been made nine trips to the disabled list in his nine major league seasons with a laundry list of you-name-it injuries. He missed the entire 2007 season recovering from a broken leg, and he has had three procedures on his right wrist.
Johnson said the condition of that wrist that will determine whether he will be able to make a big league roster this spring.
"For me, it's just staying healthy," Johnson said. "It's been hard to do in the past. I feel good now. The wrist feels good. It's been a problem the last, whatever, couple years. It's feeling good right now, so I'm feeling good about it."
If he survives the spring uninjured, he will create an interesting conundrum for the Orioles. Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette is quick to point out his .401 career on-base percentage, as well as a .992 career fielding percentage at first base.
"If Nick is healthy and on the field, I think he's contributor," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "I think he brings some things that I'd really like to have our guys feed off of with some of the on-base percentage and deep counts."
Over the course of his career, Johnson has been known as an extremely patient hitter. For his career, he averages 4.24 pitches per plate appearance (last year's major league leader, Curtis Granderson, was at 4.44). In 2006 and 2009, the only years in which he had more than 150 major league plate appearances in the past six seasons, he was in the top six in the National League in walks.
In 2009, Johnson put up a .291 batting average with a .426 on-base percentage, .405 slugging percentage, eight homers, 62 RBIs and 99 walks in 574 at-bats with the Washington Nationals and Florida Marlins.
Still, he hasn't been able to shake the right wrist injury. And since he tore a ligament taking a swing in 2008 while playing with the Nationals, his wrist hasn't been the same. It seemed to be healthy going into the 2010 season, when Johnson had signed a $5.5 million contract to make his second stint with the Yankees, but the wrist flared up and he played in only 24 games that season. He tried to rehabilitate it slowly, but it needed season-ending surgery.
Johnson signed a minor league deal this time last season with the Indians but spent most of the season with Cleveland's Triple-A team in Columbus. The wrist still hurt. Just taking batting practice was painful.
"When I was in Columbus, it was a battle just to get through that," Johnson said. "I couldn't compete, I couldn't work, I couldn't prepare, and that's hard to do. I was hitting with a brace on. I was trying a lot of things."
He put up a .201/.316/.332 line in just 184 at-bats with Columbus.
"What I needed was time, and strength," he said.
Now, Johnson has another chance. For the first time, his wrist feels better than before he had surgery on it in 2008.
"Yeah, it's been frustrating, but you've got to keep pushing forward," Johnson said. "I had to get it right, and it's right now. Now I've got to do what I've got to do. My main thing is just staying on the field and do the cage work and be prepared. The other stuff comes along when you stay on the field."
A healthy Johnson would give the Orioles plenty of options. He would be able to spell Chris Davis at first as well as get at-bats at designated hitter. That would allow Davis to move around, too, possibly getting playing time at third and DH. Free-agent acquisition Wilson Betemit, who was signed mainly to DH but can also play third, first and possibly shortstop, adds to the flexibility.
Showalter said he would like to see Johnson overcome the mental obstacle of his injury-riddled career.
"I want to see if he can physically hold up defensively," Showalter said. "Is he going to get over being gun shy diving for a ball, doing something really physical? It's understandable. We've talked about it. You get cautious, [thinking], 'When's it going to happen again?' You don't want to get into that. Most of the time, people get hurt when they're constantly thinking about it."