Rays' Dan Johnson Earned Shot, Then Demotion


From Marc Topkin, Storied Chronicler of Legends:

The Rays designated for assignment 1B Dan Johnson and called up OF Justin Ruggiano on Friday. They also activated LHP J.P. Howell from the DL and optioned RHP Rob Delaney back to Durham.

Johnson, who began the season as the starter, lost his job to Casey Kotchman and has played sparingly. The Rays have 10 days to trade, release or pass him through waivers.

With a $1-million salary, Johnson would seem likely to clear waivers so he could end up back in Durham.

The Rays' trust in minor-league statistics has been somewhat touching.

In 2008, Johnson -- then 28 -- batted .307/.424/.556 with Triple-A Durham and the Rays called him up for the stretch run in September. He collected just five hits in 25 at-bats, but two of them were home runs, one of which won this game.*

* For more about that magical moment, you need only purchase and read this excellent 4-star book.

Johnson's 2008 performance wasn't enough to get him a job with the Rays in 2009, but it was enough to get him a (presumably) fat contract with the Yokohoma Bay Stars. He fared decently in Japan, but returned to the States after batting .215 with 24 homers in 117 games. Returned to the Rays, specifically. More specifically returned to Durham ... where, once again, he tore up the International League, this time to the tune of a .303/.430/.624 line. That's pretty good in any league.

The Rays called up Johnson in early August, and he got 140 plate appearances down the stretch and finished with a .198 batting average. Yes, he drew enough walks and hit enough home runs to post a 110 OPS+. But a sub-.200 batting average is just hard to countenance, management-wise.

Nevertheless, the departure of free agent Carlos Pena left the Rays looking for a low-cost option at first base, an Dan Johnson was already at hand. Casey Kotchman ... well, he would be around, too. Just in case. But few could actually recall Kotchman having a good season. So Johnson opened 2011 as the Rays' every-day first baseman, more or less.

That arrangement essentially lasted through April, at the end of which Johnson sported a .141 batting average. The batting average was accompanied by 3 RBI, all of them coming on Johnson's 1 HR.

That's where his numbers are still stuck today, one homer and three ribs, the batting average fallen to .115.

In Johnson's last three seasons in the majors, he's been blessed with 215 at-bats and batted .167. He's not really that bad, can't be that bad. But at some point you just have to make a move. Especially with Casey Kotchman -- perhaps because the pus was finally squeezed out of his tear ducts -- having the season of his life.

There seems to be a pretty good chance that Johnson will return to Durham, and I have little doubt that he'll crush Triple-A pitchers like he always does. Does Rays management still refuse to believe in Quadruple-A hitters? I suspect we'll find out in September.

Speaking of players who crush the International League but can't hit for average in the American League ... Folks, meet Justin Ruggiano, who's spent most of the last five seasons with Durham, to the point where they're talking about renaming the ballpark after him. At 29, Ruggiano's no longer a prospect and he might be subject to the same problems as Johnson. But he can play the outfield and might come in handy, considering Sam Fuld's recent struggles (and actual talents).

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