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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

October 20, 2009 at 12:42 PM

Rob Johnson: “Kenji was a great teammate”

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I put in a call to Rob Johnson on Monday to get his reaction on the Kenji Johjima news, seeing as how he’s now the senior catcher in the organization with his one year and 57 days of service time.

Johnson had been traveling from Vail, Colo., where he had hip surgery last Friday, to Montana on Monday, so he wasn’t able to return my call until today. He and his wife and infant child will be leaving shortly for his home in Peoria, Ariz., where he’ll resume rehab.

First off, Johnson is downright giddy over the results of the first operation, which was to repair a torn labrum in his left hip. In a few weeks, he’ll go back to Vail to have the same operation on his right hip.

“The joint feels so freed up,” he enthused. “Honestly, I can’t wait to get the next one done. I’m so confident I’m going to be ready by spring training.”

Johnson is also facing wrist surgery and possibly elbow surgery. Don Wakamatsu told me Monday that he’s not sure Johnson would be ready for the start of spring training, but Johnson said, “I’m actually pretty confident I will be. Obviously, the very first day of spring training, I don’t know. They might want to make sure I’m ready, so I might be held out of some drills and be limited the first few days. But I am really confident I’m going to be ready. I’m moving around pretty darn good.”

On Johjima’s decision to return to Japan, Johnson said, “I was really surprised. That’s baseball — so many crazy things happen. Guys get traded, guys get signed, guys get released, and guys choose to go home and spend more time with family. It was the last thing on my mind, but I understand it, in a sense. There’s times when I’m going 12 days away from my own wife and son, and I get lonely. I can only imagine going three or four months. I definitely see where he’s coming from.”

Did Johnson see signs of frustration in Johjima, who had lost his starting job and was hit by injuries last year?

“Kenji was my locker mate. We spent a lot of time in the outfield together as well (shagging during batting practice). I really didn’t sense it from him by any means. I thought he handled everything well. He went on the disabled list, but as far as attitude, I didn’t see any hints of it at all. I thought Kenji was a great teammate.”

But Johnson realizes that Johjima’s departure creates on opportunity for him.

“Yeah, definitely,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of opportunity. Coming in, the best way to explain, last year we knew there was one job open, and that was the backup job. We knew Kenji was the every-day catcher. The way I look at it, now there’s two positions open on the Mariners. The starting and backup job are both open. No one’s guaranteed anything.”

In his first full season in the majors, Johnson started 75 games, more than any other Mariners’ catcher. Johjima started 67, Jamie Burke 11, Adam Moore 5 and Guillermo Quiroz 4. Johnson believes he has a lot more to offer, particularly at the plate, than he showed last year, when he hit .213 with a .615 OPS.

“I’m looking forward to competing and getting healthy,” he said. “I’m 100 percent positive I will be ready and physically not in pain any more and able to explode and move. There are decisions to be made way above me, with Wak and Jack Zduriencik. All I can do is worry about me getting healthy and being ready.”

Johnson, 27, had a close relationship with Jeff Clement despite the fact both were competing for playing time at catcher prior to Clement’s trade to Pittsburgh in July. He seems to have something similar going with Moore, 25.

“Adam’s awesome,” he said. “His locker was right next to mine, and we talked a lot. He’s a good friend. I thought he did a heck of a job. Every time he caught, I told him, ‘Man, you looked really, really good.’ He was confident, he handled the staff well, called a good game. As far as hitting, any time you come up from the minors in that environment, you haven’t seen guys. Your first month in the big leagues, every time you step in the box, it’s someone new. Things are different up there. He’s proved in the past he can hit. He’s a great athlete. I thought he did a really good job. Whether or not he makes the team or not, that’s up to the staff, and up to Adam. I think it’s a really good ballplayer.”

Johnson understands that the Mariners are likely to pick up a veteran catcher on the free-agent market, considering his uncertain health status and Moore’s youth.

“I understand they need to take precautions,” he said. “That’s another decision for Jack and Wak and the people higher up. They’ve done a great job bringing guys in, and made a lot of really good decisions. I respect whatever decisions they’ll make.”

(Associated Press photo)

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