Johnson, Stewart wish each other well
Left-field competition enters final stretch as season approaches
LAKELAND, Fla. -- It's an annual part of the spring that Reed Johnson never really thought much about until this year. The Blue Jays outfielder was packing some belongings, preparing for the trip out of Florida at the end of the month -- a move that's right around the corner.
When Johnson went to give his bags to Jeff Ross, Toronto's equipment manager, the uncertainty of the outfielder's situation suddenly came to mind. Johnson told Ross to keep the luggage off to the side, just in case the outfielder doesn't depart Spring Training as a member of the Blue Jays.
"That way it saves [them] the hassle of having to dig through everything to pull that out," said Johnson, recalling his conversation with Ross.
On Friday afternoon, Johnson sat inside the visitors' clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium, discussing his future after leaving Toronto's Grapefruit League game against Detroit. Over the offseason, and even in the early stages of Spring Training, Johnson believed he was going to be playing left field for the Blue Jays this year.
That outlook changed drastically on Feb. 25, when Toronto signed veteran outfielder Shannon Stewart to a Minor League contract. Now, Johnson and Stewart -- friends and, once again, teammates -- are competing for a spot on Toronto's Opening Day roster. Barring injury, it's extremely doubtful that both would make the team.
Toronto only needs one of Johnson or Stewart to share half of the left-field platoon duties with outfielder Matt Stairs. It's likely that the Blue Jays would either release or trade the player who doesn't make the roster, and Stewart has already indicated that he probably would not accept a Minor League assignment.
Both players are quick to say that they're rooting for the other, though Johnson and Stewart each understand that one of them isn't likely to be with Toronto less than two weeks from now. For Johnson, who has been in the Blue Jays organization since 1999, the unknown is what is the hardest to deal with when he's not on the playing field.
"You've played with these guys nine years -- six years in the big leagues," Johnson said. "I try not to think about it, but it's hard not to wonder what it would be like if something did happen."
One thing that Johnson and Stewart are in agreement on is that it would be easier on both of them if the decision came soon. Johnson said every day he comes to the ballpark, he looks around to see if Stewart is still there. The 34-year-old Stewart, who is in camp after offseason contract negotiations with various teams went awry, is likely doing the same thing.
"If that decision came sooner [rather] than later it'd bring security," Johnson said. "At least both guys would know what's going on, whether they're here or they're not. In a sense, you [would rather] find out sooner than later, but we don't have control over that. I don't know if this thing's going to go all the way to the end or if it's going to be tomorrow."
Stewart, who spent parts of nine seasons with Toronto from 1995-2003, echoed Johnson's sentiment.
"I'm sure it'd be easier on both of us," said Stewart, when asked if he hoped to find out soon if he or Johnson is going to make the team. "But they have to make decisions and take time to do what they have to do. That's just the way it is, and we don't have any control over that."
All that Johnson and Stewart can control is their play on the diamond. On Friday, both outfielders were in the starting lineup against the Tigers and each contributed to the offense. Johnson went 2-for-4 with one run scored, and Stewart collected one hit in four at-bats with a run of his own.
Johnson is coming off an injury-plagued season in which he hit .236 over 79 games for Toronto. After appearing in just eight April games last year, the 31-year-old was sidelined with a lower back injury and he missed roughly three months after undergoing surgery to repair a herniated disc on April 14.
Johnson returned to the Jays' lineup in July, but he never regained any level of comfort with his swing and he lost some speed on the basepaths. This spring, Johnson hasn't had issues with running and he said he's finally starting to feel like he did at the plate in 2006, when he hit .319 with 12 homers, 49 RBIs and a .390 on-base percentage in 134 games for the Jays.
"I'm kind of in tune to where my swing is at," Johnson said. "I felt like I was doing that two years ago and I feel like I'm back at that spot. Last year, when I came back, I just never really got into a good groove to where I figured out what was going on with my swing."
Stewart said that he's been happy with how he's been progressing offensively, considering he arrived to Spring Training later than he had planned. After hitting .290 in 146 games with the A's a year ago, Stewart hoped to net a multi-year deal over the winter, but he wound up switching agents and settling for Toronto's offer in February -- a lesser proposal than one tabled by the club earlier in the winter.
"My situation was very frustrating, just because of the way I think everything went down," Stewart said. "But I think for missing a week, I'm starting to come around and I'm starting to get comfortable. But it's different. Usually I come into camp as being one of the guys.
"It's an unfortunate situation, but in the end I think it's going to work itself out. If I'm here, or if I'm not and if he's here, I'm sure that another team will be interested."
Johnson knows about the issues Stewart dealt with over this past offseason, and that's one reason he was happy to see the veteran land a job -- even if it was with Toronto.
"There wasn't a job out there for Shannon," Johnson said. "Unfortunately, with some things that happened with him and his agent or something, whatever happened in the offseason, kind of allowed that. He just told me, he just wants to play baseball. I understand that. I'm happy the two of us are here."
That might be true, but there's still that uncertainty that is hanging over their heads.
"The good thing about it with myself and Shannon," Johnson said, "is once we step inside the baseball field, we're just going to play and we're not really thinking about that stuff. But when you're off the field, it's hard not to think about stuff like that -- to wonder where you're going to be.
"I've been in this organization for nine years. It's one of those things where I don't know anything else."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.