A decade after ‘Baby Braves,’ Johnson back trying to win job

Five years after leaving the Braves organization, where he spent his first decade as a pro, Kelly Johnson returned last month. In some ways it felt like he never left.

“It’s a little bit like you go off to college and you come home and your mom hasn’t changed your room one bit,” he said. “It’s obviously the same, but different. Still, it feels like home.”

But there have been big changes. A first-round draft pick in 2000 and a lineup regular for most of five seasons with the Braves through 2009, Johnson now is a 33-year-old non-roster invitee on a minor league contract. He’s trying to win a job as a utility man who can play some at second base, third base and left field.

Coming off a career-worst season that saw him bat .215 with a .296 OBP and seven homers in 297 plate appearances for the Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox, Johnson hopes to show this spring that he’s not washed up and can fill a role as a left-handed bat for a Braves team that has only a few hitters with as much experience as he does.

“He looks exactly the same, and seeing him running and doing everything reminds me of the first time he was here,” said Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez, who was a 37-year-old Braves catcher in his final season when Johnson arrived in 2005. “When we got him the first time he was hungry being in the big leagues. I think he’s focused now; he’s hungry to be back.”

While some things haven’t changed, plenty have. Johnson got married during his first tenure with the Braves, and his wife, Lauren, had their first child after his final season with the Braves. Now he’s a 33-year-old father of three boys. “Yeah, a little bit’s changed,” he said, smiling at the understatement.

The amiable Texan is as popular as ever among teammates. But he’s far removed from his arrival as one of the first few of what became a legion of rookies — the so-called Baby Braves — on the ’05 team that won its 14th consecutive division title. Those Braves used an almost unfathomable 18 rookies during the season, including five with more than 200 plate appearances apiece: Johnson, Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur and a couple of others, Ryan Langerhans and Wilson Betemit, who’d had multiple brief call-ups in previous seasons.

“Me, Mac, (pitcher Kyle) Davies and (catcher) Brayan Pena were the first four” to make their debuts in 2005, Johnson said. “We were in third place when I came up” and ended up winning the National League East title.

Johnson smiled and added, “Of course, Andruw Jones went from hitting 12 home runs through two months to ending with 52; that had something to do with it. But we won the division.”

The Braves did it with a team more laden with rookies than any of Atlanta’s previous 13 division-title teams. In fact, no other major league team had advanced to the postseason having used as many rookies.

Johnson remembered a win in Cincinnati that ended with four or five rookies on the field along with a couple of other young players, Adam LaRoche and Marcus Giles. “We were slapping hands at the end and I remember McCann looking at me and saying, ‘Can you (expletive) believe this?’”

McCann stayed with the Braves longer than anyone else from that rookie class, playing nine seasons in Atlanta and making seven All-Star teams before going to the Yankees as a free agent after the 2013 season.

“My fondest memory was all of us getting to experience the big leagues at the same time,” McCann said of that huge rookie class. “We were all real close, all the guys that got called up. Today a lot of us are still close friends.”

McCann hit .278 with five homers in 59 games during the regular season, then homered off Roger Clemens in the division series against Houston in the rookie catcher’s first postseason game.

“We came up and played a huge role,” McCann said. “We filled a lot of voids they had from injuries, and we were able to hold our own. We were all learning at the big leagues and having success, winning big games. That made it even better.”

Johnson was a case study in manager Bobby Cox’s renowned patience. When he went 2-for-34 with one RBI in his first 12 games through June 13, fans and media howled for Johnson to be benched. Even some of Cox’s coaches wondered if Johnson was ready for the big leagues.

Cox didn’t listen. He told Johnson and reporters that he was sticking with the rookie. Said he loved his sweet swing and pointed out that it wasn’t as if Johnson were whiffing (he had six walks and only three strikeouts in those 12 games.).

The patience was rewarded. Beginning June 14, Johnson hit .344 with 12 extra-base hits (six homers) and 23 RBIs in his next 24 games, posting a .455 OBP and .613 slugging percentage and winning a National League Player of the Week award along the way.

“I remember Bobby talking about him and (general manager John) Schuerholz talking about him, how good his swing was, and he proved it,” Perez said.

Johnson hit .241 with a .334 OBP and .371 OPS in 334 plate appearances that year, with nine homers and 40 RBIs. Good numbers, but not what some might have expected after that tear. And in some ways, that’s been a microcosm of his career.

He has a .250 average, 40 triples, 131 homers, a .333 OBP and a .755 OPS in nearly 4,500 plate appearances.

Johnson hit .284 with 26 homers and an .865 OPS in 2010 for Arizona in his first season away from Atlanta, and followed that with 21 homers in 2011, though his average sank to .221 with a .717 OPS. He hasn’t hit above .235 in the past four seasons and posted an OBP higher than .313 only once in the past six seasons.

“He didn’t put up the (career) numbers that everybody was expecting with his great swing,” Perez said. “I always thought every year, when I’d see him on TV and think, all right, there’s Kelly, he’s doing good. Then I’d see his (season) numbers and think, that’s it? But it’s not a bad career he’s had. It’s a pretty good career. And he’s one of our guys.

“One of the few Baby Braves still playing, and I think he’s going to be OK. He can still play. He’s one of our Braves.”