Once a catcher, Johnson returns to Padres on the hill
After years as a backup backstop, the veteran hopes to show his pitching ability
PEORIA, Ariz. -- It's easy for Rob Johnson to move through the Padres' Minor League clubhouse without a glance, let alone one of those peculiar, what-is-he-doing-here looks from his new teammates.
This is by no means an indictment on Johnson's Major League catching career, where he played for four teams, catching Felix Hernandez shutouts along the way while earning a reputation as a superior game-caller.
No, this is more a reflection on those other players in this clubhouse, young players who, in many cases, are 10 years his junior and don't have an idea what Johnson's story is all about.
This isn't lost on the 31-year-old Johnson, who has checked his ego -- and service time -- at the front door of the Padres' facility in Peoria every morning he arrives for workouts. He's had no problem embracing his newfound anonymity. He actually seems to enjoy it.
"I went from a big league catcher, a known guy to being a Minor League pitcher," Johnson said, smiling.
That is certainly the hope for Johnson, who is optimistic his new career path can lead him back to the Major Leagues, only this time as a pitcher and not a catcher.
"I'm excited for this journey," Johnson said the other day.
Position changes aren't unusual in the game, at least not in the Minor Leagues. But for Johnson, he's turned his back on catching after 265 games behind the plate with the Mariners, Padres, Mets and, last season, the Cardinals.
But this move certainly rates as atypical in the sense that Johnson -- who had offers from Major League teams to catch -- turned his back on the position that got him to the big leagues for the hope that the strong right arm that served him well as a catcher can get him back to the Major Leagues.
"We put a date on this offseason," Johnson said. "I don't know if people understand, but this isn't a late-ditch resort. I had some offers to catch with some good teams. We wanted to see where each offer was at, the best fit. When that date passed and with no offers we really wanted ... that's when I turned the page."
This position change in the making isn't some flight of fancy for Johnson, some whimsical endeavor. He's been thinking about it for a while. In fact, it was during his one season with the Padres in 2011 when he really started to think about pitching.
That summer, on yet another sun-kissed day in San Diego, Johnson, with pitching coach Darren Balsley and several others, made the trek across the outfield grass at Petco Park for the bullpen area beyond the center field fence after Johnson talked the team into taking a look at him as a pitcher.
Johnson threw a dozen or so pitches that day, not knowing how hard he was throwing, not knowing how he looked. After the session, Balsley put his arm around Johnson and leveled with him.
"He was like, 'Robby' because that's what he calls me, 'you have a chance,'" said Johnson, a career .200 hitter.
If Balsley was the least bit skeptical before, Johnson's ability essentially won him over that afternoon.
"He was curious how hard he could throw," Balsley said. "We got the gun out and he was high 80s, low 90s and his secondary pitchers were actually pretty good. But he threw like a catcher. After, I told him that he may have a chance, but being a backup catcher in the big leagues isn't a bad gig."
Which is why Johnson kept doing it.
Johnson bounced around after leaving San Diego, playing for the Mets in 2012 and for the Cardinals a year ago. He caught and, at least once each season, managed to get on the mound for a game. Last season, he started giving pitching a serious thought, bouncing ideas off Cardinals' pitcher Jason Motte, who was drafted as a catcher, as well as Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, who was his catch partner.
"I would work on some different stuff and try to emulate what they did," Johnson said.
Johnson reached out to Balsley in the offseason for advice. Balsley, in return, gave Johnson a handful of tips to help him make the transition. Better than that, he extended Johnson an offer to fly to see him near his home in Knoxville to gauge if any of those tips had truly taken hold.
"I gave Rob a guideline of how he could, mechanically, start throwing like a pitcher instead of a catcher," Balsley said. "He put a lot of hard work into it. In January, he flew out to see me for three days and he looked great. He looked like a pitcher. He had two different fastballs, his secondary pitches were good."
From there, Balsley recommended to Padres assistant general manager A.J. Hinch that they consider a Minor League deal. The Padres offered, Johnson accepted.
"I really hope he makes it," Balsley said.
Johnson, who has a two-seam and four-seam fastball and can sink and cut it, will find out soon. He'll start facing Minor League hitters on Monday.
At any rate, no matter how this turns out, Johnson knows he'll miss his former life as a catcher -- for a lot of reasons.
"I think there's going to be a lot of things I do miss; the competition, the setting up of hitters, the grind, helping the pitcher through an inning where he's really scuffling, setting up a hitter and fooling him ... and that moment when you convince a pitcher that this is the pitch to throw.
"But I'm not going to miss taking balls off my wrist," Johnson said. "And I won't miss cup shots, either."
But he will miss the memories that catching afforded him, many from his four seasons with the Mariners (2007-2010).
"I remember in Seattle, I caught Felix Hernandez, Jarrod Washburn and Cliff Lee. I caught a Washburn one-hitter ... that was a big deal for me," Johnson said. "I made my debut in Yankee Stadium and [Jorge] Posada was playing. I felt giggly like a school boy. Ken Griffey Jr. took me under his wing in Seattle and placed my locker next to his."
"Going to the World Series last year was amazing," said Johnson, who wasn't on the roster, but went to all the games. "Playing under Mike Matheny was incredible and picking Yadier Molina's brain every day was something I'll never forget."
Johnson is pragmatic enough to know that the odds are against him. The Padres' system is filled with young, talented arms. Roster spots are scant and will generally be filled with players the Padres have invested a lot in, both in time and money.
"My adjustments are going to have to come fast, because I'm a little older and not at development age anymore," Johnson said. But I'm at complete peace with this and I'm excited to be here, excited to learn as much as I can. Ultimately, the hitters are going to tell me if I can do this or not.
Johnson then stops, leans up against the wall and smiles before continuing his thought.
"If I'm throwing my best stuff up there and it's not good enough, then I'm OK with that," he said. "… But the competitor in of me says it's going to be different than that."