With ties to Chipper, Johnson eyes job at third

With ties to Chipper Jones, Chris Johnson will now try to replace him at third base for the Braves.

ATLANTA – Chris Johnson knows exactly what he’s getting himself into.

Growing up, Johnson, his mom, dad and sister would make the 8 ½-hour drive from Naples, Fla., to Atlanta to see the Braves – and to see Chipper Jones.

Johnson worked with Jones’ father, Larry Sr., in college at Stetson and would hear about Chipper from Hatters coach Pete Dunn, Chipper’s godfather. Dunn, Johnson said, would often tell his players, “If you’re going to be like anyone, be like Chipper Jones.”

He isn’t trying to be Chipper Jones – but Johnson is trying to replace him.

“I’m excited to play third and I know the history over there,” Johnson said. “I’ve got some shoes to fill and I’m just going to do the best I can and try and just make sure I play Chris Johnson’s game and obviously not Chipper Jones’ game.”

Acquired from the Diamondbacks as part of the Justin Upton trade – a deal that cost the Braves a player that was slated to be their best option at the position in Martin Prado -- Johnson will head to spring training contending with Juan Francisco at third, though manager Fredi Gonzalez said the two could end up sharing the role.

“I talked to Chris about it and at the very minimum you go into it as a platoon situation. That could always change,” Gonzalez said. “You start hitting the ball, you start playing well and you find yourself in there more and more. I’ll tell the same thing to Juan when I see him in spring training.

“But at the bare minimum, you think about it that way and whoever wins that job … nobody’s a dummy, if someone starts producing over somebody else, they get more playing time.”

Johnson, 28, has made 315 career starts at third, including 127 last year for the Astros and D-backs and is coming off a year in which he hit a career-high 15 home runs to go along with a .281 average, 76 RBIs and .777 OPS. Johnson also saw his power numbers jump at Chase Field, hitting seven home runs in 44 games at a park that’s among the league’s most hitter-friendly, ranking sixth last year in producing 1.19 HRs per game.

Defensively, Johnson’s metrics have trended toward poor with a minus-9.4 ultimate zone rating (UZR) and defensive runs saved (DRS) of minus-11.

The 25-year-old Francisco does offer more home-run capability, posting three years in the Reds’ minor league system of 25, 23 and 22 home runs and better defensive metrics than Johnson with a 3.0 UZR and a DRS of 1.

On the down side, Francisco struck out 34.1 percent of the time last year and has struggled vs. left-handed pitchers in his 174 big-league games. He has a .190 average against lefties and all nine of his home runs last year came with righties on the mound. It’s a sizable drop off from Johnson, who doesn’t provide quite the drop off with a .255 (lefties) and .283 (righties) split.

“Obviously I know myself and Juan are going to come into spring training and eye that starting job,” Johnson said. “That’s everybody’s mentality but then once camp breaks we’re all wearing the same uniform and we’re going to pull together and do the best we can.

“I know there’s going to be a battle over there in spring training to try and figure out if somebody can take the spot and that’s our mindset.”

The Braves know what they’re getting with Johnson, while Francisco could provide more upside. It creates a debate that figures to last through the spring -- and potentially into the early stages of the season. But as Gonzalez pointed out, this being the only real question on the roster isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“I feel good about it. I think we replace what Chipper can give us in left field with Justin,” he said. “So if everything falls right and everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing, to worry about your No. 8 spot? The eighth hitter in the lineup and the third base platoon situation? That’s not bad at all, really.”

Johnson wasn’t expecting to be traded when he woke up on Jan. 25. He went through his normal morning routine and was preparing to head to the Diamondbacks facility to workout when his girlfriend came running downstairs after receiving a text message from Johnson’s parents that said, "Get packing again."

“(She) was like, ‘Hey, you need to check your phone,” said Johnson, who was traded from Houston to Arizona on July 29. “I had like 65 text messages on my phone.”

There was no introductory press conference, no hoopla as he was dealt to Atlanta along with Upton, a two-time All-Star, in exchange for Prado, pitching prospects Randall Delgado and Zeke Spruill and minor-league infielders Nick Ahmed and Brandon Drury.

He was almost an afterthought in the trade but Johnson doesn't mind. He says that he’s come to learn anything can happen after his time with the Astros, where he saw the likes of Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt traded.

“It’s fine for me. I don’t mind it at all,” Johnson said. “I try not to get involved with other players. That’s why the platoon situation doesn’t bother me all that much. I just try and focus on what I can do and try to get better myself. … Justin’s an unbelievable player, so it’s good to be lumped in with a guy like that. We’re also good friends so we’re excited to come over here and try and help out.”

The day after the deal, Chipper took to Twitter, writing: “Wanna welcome Stetson grad and ex LJ Sr disciple, Chris Johnson, to Braves Country! Look forward to seeing him man the hot corner!”

Johnson isn’t trying to be Chipper Jones, but he clearly has his attention and expects he’ll lean on the future Hall of Famer he’s trying to take over for.

“Hopefully I can get together with him at spring training and pick his brain and learn as much as I can from him,” Johnson said. “When he’s not hunting.”

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