Among the offseason moves the Marlins made during free agency, the less-clamored-about signing of Chris Johnson could prove valuable in terms of depth and versatility.
“Chris is a guy we looked at that fits in for us playing some first and some third base and we’re trying to play him in the outfield a little bit,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “He’s been swinging the bat well and we’ve been trying to give him different looks to give him some flexibility, and give us some flexibility at different positions.”
Johnson is one of a few players such as Miguel Rojas and Derek Dietrich that have shown their versatility this spring and could play key roles during the rigors of a long baseball season.
Johnson, 31, has been with five teams — most recently the Braves and Indians last season — and played 627 games at third base, 49 at first base, 75 as a designated hitter, and two as an outfielder.
Johnson, a career .280 hitter, finished fifth in the National League in batting average (.321) in 2013, and is a career .314 hitter against lefties — a major reason the Marlins signed him to a one-year deal in January.
His primary role will be to back up Justin Bour, who struggled against lefties last season (.221 average in 68 at-bats) despite hitting 23 home runs against right-handed pitching.
Since joining the team, Johnson said it has been a thrill, learning from one of his boyhood idols, Barry Bonds, the Marlins’ first-year hitting coach.
“It was a little intimidating at first, because, come on, it’s Barry Bonds, maybe the greatest to ever play the game,” Johnson said. “He’s awesome. He never talks about himself unless you ask and works with every single guy. He doesn’t just stick to the main guys on the team.”
Johnson, a Naples native who graduated from Bishop Verot in Fort Myers, said he was a little bummed Friday not being able to play in his return to his hometown due to some mid-back spasms. Johnson was scratched from the lineup a couple of hours before first pitch. He hopes to play Saturday against the Red Sox.
“When I tried to get out of bed today, it locked up on me,” Johnson said. “They gave me an anti-inflammatory and I should be good to go by tomorrow.”
Johnson said he’s thoroughly enjoying his opportunity with the Marlins.
He recently became a father when his wife gave birth to their first son, Greyson, on December 22.
“He was born in Las Vegas, which is probably why he doesn’t like to sleep, the little party animal,” Johnson joked.
Johnson’s own father, Ron, played briefly for the Royals and the Montreal Expos from 1982-1984 and now coaches the Orioles Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia.
“I don’t think I’ve been on a team with a coaching staff that works as hard as this one,” Johnson said. “It’s not just show up, take batting practice, field some balls and go play. Every single day they have a plan and they know what they will work on. They’re always focused on ways to make you better.”
BACK AT CAMP
Marlins pitching coach Juan Nieves said Wei-Yin Chen threw 49 pitches in three innings and looked solid in a simulated start Friday in Jupiter.
Nieves said Jose Fernandez and Edwin Jackson are scheduled to throw in the neighborhood of 50 pitches Saturday in Jupiter.
Jackson, a 32-year old veteran whom the Marlins signed in January and is battling for a spot on the back end of the rotation, hasn’t pitched since a rough outing Monday against the Nationals in Viera. Jackson gave up five runs, including a home run, on eight hits in two innings, striking out only one batter.
Jarred Cosart continued to make his case to lock up a spot in the rotation Friday, pitching two scoreless innings in his first start and second appearance of the spring in what culminated in a 6-5 win over the Twins.
Cosart escaped the first unscathed despite having runners reach second and third. Cosart later walked John Ryan Murphy but followed that with a strikeout of Eduardo Nunez chasing an outside fastball. Dee Gordon went 2 for 3 and recorded his first RBI of the spring.
▪ Saturday: Marlins LHP Chris Narveson vs. Red Sox LHP Henry Owens, 1:05 p.m., Fort Myers.
▪ Sunday: Marlins RHP Tom Koehler vs. Mets RHP Matt Harvey, 1:05 p.m., Jupiter.