Almost an afterthought early in camp, Elliot Johnson has emerged from a crowded roster battle and will be trekking north with the Tribe in just about a week's time. So who is Elliot Johnson?
Johnson came up through the Rays system in the mid-2000's, Johnson was never a particularly highly regarded prospect. Baseball America never included him in a Rays top 10, although he did slot in at number 9 on the 2007 list on Baseball Prospectus, where they talked about "plus-plus" speed, improving power, and solid defense.
In fact, one of the more impressive pieces of Johnson's resume has nothing to do with what he has done on the field. Johnson wasn't drafted as a high school senior in 2002, but signed with the Rays and worked his way from undrafted free agent to fringe prospect to Major League ballplayer. It took him nearly a decade to do it, but this guy wasn't just an afterthought in Tribe camp - he has been an afterthought his whole career.
Other than a cup of coffee in 2008, his experience as an MLB player started in 2011, when he played in 70 games for the Rays. Over his three seasons with the Rays (2008, 2011, 2012) and partial seasons with Kansas City and Atlanta last year, Johnson has accrued 806 PA (about 1.25 seasons worth for an everyday player), and his batting line speaks for itself: .218/.273/.319 with 12 HR. It isn't saying anything good.
But there are still two things Johnson can do quite well.
The first is run the bases. His 46 steals in 62 attempts makes for a good (though not great) percentage, and impressive volume for a guy with such limited playing time.
Second, the guy can pick it in the field. He has at least two appearances at every position other than catcher (including all three OF positions), and while his OF defense leaves something to be desired, he has been an average defensive SS, above average defensive 2B, and stellar defensive 3B over the course of his career.
Spring, however, has been kind to the journeyman infielder. He has cracked two HR and thrown up a .360/.396/.640 line in 50 AB. It was good enough to earn him a spot on the roster, but don't let it fool you into thinking Johnson is something he is not. Now 30 years old, Johnson is extremely unlikely to develop a stroke that he has never previously demonstrated, even as a minor leaguer.
Instead, expect to see Johnson play a few roles: He'll likely be the primary backup for Asdrubal Cabrera at SS. Mike Aviles played this role last year, but Johnson has shown flashes of being the better defender and with Aviles taking more reps in the OF, this is the most likely way to get Johnson some playing time.
When he isn't starting in place of Cabrera, I'd expect him to be the first guy off the bench for two duties - pinch running and late-game defense. That may not be the sexiest role in baseball, but if Johnson sticks around (and he is likely a candidate to get dropped when Jason Giambi returns) through the season, I fully expect to see him involved in some high leverage situations - cases where he can make or break a game (and therefore a season) with his glove or his legs.
As long as the Indians keep him focused on those two attributes, there is no reason to think that Johnson can't deliver a few extra runs on the bases and save a few more with his glove. Not bad for a guy whose pro career almost ended before it started.