Erik Johnson entered this spring in kind of a tough spot. It may not matter how well he pitches -- with John Danks in the last year of his deal (and not a great bullpen candidate), Mat Latos on a make-good contract and Jacob Turner out of options, Johnson is holding the worst hand of anybody in this poker game.
He didn't knock down the door in his spring debut on Monday, either, at least statistically (3 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 0 K, 1 HR, 1 WP). His line is worse than he looked -- Jerry Sands dropped the third out in the first inning, turning the two walks into two runs -- but he also gave up a blast to Mike Trout for the other two runs. If the fifth rotation spot were an unfiltered battle, I'd put him a notch behind Turner and a notch ahead of Danks through one turn.
But it's not, and while Johnson might be stuck waiting for circumstances to turn his way, he stands to enjoy some freedom associated with it. After a few years of terseness to start his career, it's been fun to see Johnson open up with his self-assessment:
"I felt great," Johnson said. "The ball is definitely exploding out of my hand. You could tell just by all the terrible contact, a lot of weak foul balls. For me, the two balls they hit really hard were just fastballs up over the plate. I’m still getting synched up, still really dialing in and I knew today I wanted to throw a lot of fastballs and that’s exactly what I did."
"I belong up there," he said. "That's where I should be pitching."
Which is true, and kinda sums up his state. He might be the sixth man in talent and seventh in contractual status, but he's already had three cups of coffee with the Sox, the last one qualifying as a modest success after a dominant season in Charlotte. There's nothing for him in the minors, and he's entering his prime in good health, so he has to advocate for himself. He might be speaking out of turn, but that's unavoidable if you don't have a turn to begin with.
Changes of scenery don't always offer better chances, though. The Sox jettisoned Micah Johnson from their logjam in the Todd Frazier trade, but he finds himself in a bigger bottleneck with the Dodgers, as they retained both Chase Utley and Howie Kendrick to go along with utility players Kiké Hernandez and Alex Guerrero.
The Johnsons' situations echo each other, with Micah's themes repeating themselves from one spring to another:
- "'Offensively, I know I'm ready. There isn't a doubt. Defensively there are questions, but eventually those will be old news.'"
- "'Some guys don't have the gifted hands like Juan Castro or even [the White Sox's] Carlos Sanchez, so we have to work at it a little more.'"
And while this is smirking fodder, it's basically the attitude he has to adopt. But reality is also forcing him to adapt, and this is the new wrinkle:
Johnson invoked the name of Dee Gordon, which is more than a little interesting since the Dodgers seemed to start stockpiling second basemen after Gordon was traded to the Miami Marlins in December 2014. And all Gordon has done since he left was win a Gold Glove and a batting title in South Beach.
There were questions about Gordon's defense, too, and there was talk about turning him into an outfielder. Perhaps it's not a coincidence, then, that Johnson is already taking fly balls in center field.
Either of the above situations is better than the one Matt Davidson attempts to weather. Erik Johnson and Micah Johnson have been crowded out, but their candidacies have varying degrees of life. In comparison, the White Sox shoveled dirt on top of Davidson this winter by trading for both Frazier and Brett Lawrie.
That's not the Sox' fault -- Davidson forced their hand by hitting .201/. 288/.369 over his two years in Charlotte. He's well aware of it, and, in a wide-ranging interview that doubles as a CrossFit promo, he admitted that the last two seasons ground him into dust:
"I think the workouts were ‘fine’ and were doing the job," Davidson said of his previous offseasons. "But the biggest part that was missing was really the mental part, relating that to the grind of the summer and the game. It’s easy to come in here and do the work, but being in tune with every movement, every workout, and really put that into those times where you’re struggling mid-season (is what makes a difference). Mentally, I haven’t been very strong the last couple of years."
Davidson cites July and August as problem times during the season. It’s far enough into the season that the Opening Day sensation has worn off and far enough from the end of the season that there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, especially for a struggling hitter.
Barring a disaster scenario -- multiple injuries at third base and DH -- there's nothing for him with the White Sox. The club just DFA'd kindred spirit Mike Olt after the Austin Jackson signing, and both are set to start the season in Charlotte since Olt cleared waivers.
What Davidson has on Olt is two-plus years and a bunch of tanking teams in the National League. He turns 25 in 18 days (no reason for me to know that), giving him one more season to avoid being really written off. So all he can for the time being is thrash and wait. This blast over the batter's eye on Monday is a small step in a long season: