With the Rays claiming Brandon Allen off waivers and BJ Upton's return from the disabled list, it was clear that two of three Al Lopez award winning position players (Stephen Vogt, Elliot Johnson, Reid Brignac) would not survive the weekend at Tropicana Field. Stephen Vogt was the obvious choice given that Allen will fill his role as designated pinch-hitter. There's also the fact that Vogt set a franchise record by making outs in his first thirteen plate appearances. Vogt is 27 years of age and without a designated position of excellence. Perhaps he will make it back to the big leagues, but if not I can appreciate that he will have the memories, three weeks of greatly enhanced pay checks and that shiny Al Lopez award. I'll always have the love for the fringe prospects/organizational soldiers so I enjoyed his stint.
The more difficult decision for the Rays came down to Reid Brignac, one year removed from being handed an unchallenged opening day shortstop gig, and the sole two-time Lopez award winner Elliot Johnson. Brignac, the 2004 2nd round pick of the Rays, is an advanced shortstop defensively but possesses a long loopy swing and very little discipline at the plate. Johnson was a long shot from the get go, getting his start as an un-drafted free agent out of high school in 2002. The scrappy utility man surprised many and managed to crack the 2008 opening day roster. His stay would be limited to 19 at-bats, and prior to the start of the 2010 season the out-of-options Johnson cleared waivers after he was designated for assignment. When Brignac won the Lopez award and cracked the opening day roster that same year, a crack opened for Johnson that he probably didn't recognize at the moment. He became a full time shortstop for Durham and made the most of the opportunity. Fast forward to 2011 in a post-Jason Bartlett world and you'd find Reid Brignac as the unchallenged shortstop with Elliot Johnson persevering and making it back to the big leagues as his backup.
In a vacuum there is not a team who would draft Elliot Johnson over Brignac. Brignac has the better glove at short (though Johnson has proven himself capable), has the more sparking pedigree and at 26, is two years younger than Johnson.He has one more thing that Johnson does not; a remaining minor league option. If the Rays want to keep both players in the organization, they can send Brignac down and be assured of losing neither. Johnson would have to be designated for assignment and has made himself more valuable than he was in 2010. Rumor in the Spring had the Twins interested in Johnson. Even if Johnson were to clear, he would be eligible to refuse assignment and become a free agent as a two time DFA winner.
This decision was not simply one of asset hoarding. If Johnson was set free, what would Brignac's role look like? Brignac could be a defensive closer late in games, with Sean Rodriguez sliding over to second base against left handed starters. This alignment offers an upgrade over Jeff Keppinger's glove. He also could start approximately 20-25% of the games when the Rays are facing right handed ground ball pitchers, the rare breed who dares cross Brignac's uppercut swing path.
Johnson also provides the potential for a late game defensive upgrade. He provides a better pinch running option for Jose Molina or even Luke Scott if the proper situation arose. In a small sample size, he's been a deceptively poor base runner, but the Rays seem to have plenty of confidence in that role for Johnson which is supported by his minor league record. Perhaps as a result of lacking a pedigree, Johnson developed as a utility man allowing Joe Maddon to comfortably play him at all seven of the non-battery positions. This allows Maddon the flexibility to pinch hit a designated bat like Allen for any righty against a righty (Molina, Rodriguez, Keppinger) with a sound defensive replacement available.
With both Brignac and Johnson, you really don't want them batting in a high leverage situation, but if you end up there by accident, the switch hitting Johnson is less likely to be neutralized by the opposing manager.
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The role for the 25th man may best be defined as "anything but hitting", and Elliot Johnson is able to do more things for Joe Maddon. And who knows, maybe Brignac can take advantage of this trip to Durham to reinvent himself as a better utility specialist than Johnson in the same manner Johnson developed into a shortstop in 201