3/3/2013 4:40 P.M. ET
Johnson looking to earn Braves' third-base job
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- While playing baseball for Chipper Jones' godfather, Pete Dunn, at Stetson University, Chris Johnson heard plenty of stories about his boyhood idol. Now Johnson welcomes the challenge to prove he is capable of succeeding Jones as Atlanta's starting third baseman.
Since joining the Braves as the "other guy" acquired with Justin Upton in January's blockbuster trade with the D-backs, Johnson has lived a childhood dream that developed when he and his family traveled to Atlanta to watch Jones and his other favorite Braves.
But this year's Spring Training has been much more than a fantasy camp for Johnson. The 28-year-old infielder is in the midst of a battle with Juan Francisco to begin the year as the Braves' starting third baseman.
Neither candidate seems interested in being part of the platoon role that the Braves have mentioned as a possibility if one of the players does not win the everyday job.
"They've told us from Day One we're going to come into Spring Training and see if somebody can win the job," Johnson said. "That's our mindset for now. The platoon to us is kind of like a backup plan. If we platoon, we'll figure that out when we do. But for right now, I think we're trying to win the job. For any player, I think that's what you're trying to do. Even if we knew it was going to be a platoon, I think we would still be trying to win the job."
Despite coming to camp a little bigger than the Braves had hoped, Francisco has been successful during the early stages of this competition. The powerful, pull-happy third baseman hit a monstrous home run against the Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., on Wednesday and an opposite-field single in his next at-bat.
Francisco collected two doubles during Sunday's home game against the Tigers to increase his Grapefruit League batting average to .333 (7-for-21). Oft-criticized for his dedication, he showed some hustle in the third inning by turning an opposite-field, broken-bat single into a double.
"Juan is playing good defense and he's running the bases well," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He's swinging the bat. Good things to see."
Johnson has done his part to keep the competition interesting by hitting .313 (5-for-16) with a home run during the early portion of Spring Training.
"They are both making a good case," Gonzalez said. "I think some of Chris' at-bats have been really, really good too."
Johnson showed his offensive potential while combining to hit .281 with 15 home runs and a .777 on-base plus slugging percentage in 136 games with the Astros and D-backs last year. But through his first three full seasons at the big league level, the former collegiate shortstop has been criticized for his defensive struggles.
"It's kind of one of those things that I've taken to heart," Johnson said. "People say my defense is not that great. You can look at my stats and I will even say they're not that good. So I need to fix that. That's kind of a challenge I've put on myself to show everybody that I can play defense."
A shortstop during his days at Stetson, Johnson did not begin playing third base on a permanent basis until he was playing at the Double-A Minor League level in 2008. He committed 27 errors in 110 games that year and another 15 while playing 106 games, primarily at Triple-A the next year.
Last year, Johnson produced a -10.7 UZR/150 -- a mark that was better than only Detroit's Miguel Cabrera among all Major League third basemen. Still this better than the -17.4 and -22.2 UZR/150 marks he produced during his first two full seasons as a big league third baseman.
"I feel pretty good over there," Johnson said. "I'm going to keep working. Early in my career, I was really, really focused on just hitting. That wasn't very good for me. Now I'm really focused on my defense. It's nice being around some new people because they can see me and we can start from scratch."
With his tremendous power potential, Francisco appears to have more upside than Johnson. He showed some flashes of promise while hitting .234 with nine homers and a .710 OPS in the 93 games he played for Atlanta last year.
But Francisco is hitting .190 while totaling just 67 of his 386 career plate appearances against left-handed pitchers. Concerns about his ability to handle an everyday role center around his lack of experience against southpaws and the durability he will have while carrying his big frame over the course of an entire season.
"The worst-case scenario, you leave here with a platoon situation," Gonzalez said. "We'll leave it up to a battle. Competition is good and whoever wins that job outright, the other guy might be able to help us off the bench."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.