By Bill Shanks
Kelly Johnson was a 19-year-old kid from Texas when he played for the Macon Braves back in 2001. He had been a supplemental first-round draft pick the previous year, and Johnson quickly showed everyone why the Braves held him in such high regard.
Johnson hit 23 home runs that season. South Atlantic League managers voted him the best major league prospect in the league. Johnson’s smooth left-handed swing had similarities to another top player who had been in Macon a decade earlier: Chipper Jones.
Four years later, Johnson made his big league debut, and the past two-plus seasons he has been a regular. From left field to second base, and as leadoff man to a potential power hitter, Johnson has also been the most bounced-around player in Braves history.
And even though he has been one of my favorite players, I think it’s time the Braves traded Johnson.
It’s not because I have lost faith in Johnson’s ability. I think the kid can hit. But I’ve lost faith in the Braves’ ability to place him in a situation to be successful.
Johnson is not a leadoff hitter, but the Braves continue to place him at the top of the order. We went through this last year, didn’t we? Johnson started off as the leadoff hitter, only to be replaced in early May. He hit .263 last season at the top spot in the lineup and .293 combined in the other positions.
Even though Yunel Escobar and then Gregor Blanco were the main leadoff men last year, Braves manager Bobby Cox moved Johnson back into the leadoff role this March. It really didn’t make much sense. Escobar was still an option, while rookie Jordan Schafer was the more obvious, natural leadoff hitter to at least try in the role.
Yet here we are again, in early May, with the Braves’ offense struggling and Johnson showing again that he’s not a leadoff man. You’d think, with Brian McCann injured and the powerless Casey Kotchman taking over as the cleanup hitter, it would have been a perfect time to move Johnson down in the order.
Last week, with Johnson in a slump, Cox inserted Omar Infante into the lineup at the top spot for two games. Then on Saturday, Johnson was back and finally down in the lineup hitting sixth, with Schafer taking over as the leadoff man. Johnson got two hits, but the next day Johnson was back on the bench.
And that made zero sense. The reason, or excuse, was that the Braves were facing a left-handed pitcher, Houston’s Wandy Rodriguez. But Johnson has hit .308 this season and .333 last season against lefties. Couldn’t Cox have put Infante in center field and given Schafer, who is struggling more than Johnson, a day off? Or couldn’t Cox have put Johnson in left field, just to have his bat in the lineup?
But after moving Johnson down in the order Saturday, and then seeing him get two hits batting sixth, where did Cox have Johnson batting Monday night? He was right back in the leadoff spot. Then Tuesday night, even with a right-hander on the mound, Johnson found himself back on the bench and Infante was leading off.
If Johnson is one of the Braves’ best hitters, why is Cox finding ways to occasionally put Johnson on the bench? Is this a platoon, again? Didn’t we learn last year that Johnson is more effective lower in the batting order?
Johnson has the potential to hit 20 or more home runs and drive in 80 or more runs a season. But it’s not going to happen as long as he is bounced around in different spots in the lineup. If he were consistently in one spot in the batting order, perhaps we’d see more consistency from Johnson.
Sure Johnson has trouble at times at second base. I admit I’m curious to see how good Martin Prado could be as a regular. Since left field is still such a mess, maybe the Braves need to move Johnson out there, anything to give him consistent playing time.
But until that happens, Johnson is not going to be consistent. If they’re not going to hit him lower in the order, if they’re going to platoon him and if they’re not going to play him in left, just trade him. What a shame it would be, since this lineup needs help. But if the Braves can’t figure out the best way to use Johnson, what other choice do they have?
The Bill Shanks Show airs weekdays from 3-6 pm on WFSM Fox Sports 1670 and online at www.foxsports1670.com.