Blue Jays cut ties with Johnson
Outfielder not shocked; move bittersweet for Stewart
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Only a few items remained in the near-empty locker that sat behind where Reed Johnson stood. The outfielder spent Sunday morning packing up his belongings at Knology Park after learning that he had been released by the Blue Jays.
The news didn't come as a shock for Johnson, who had prepped himself for a change of scenery since Toronto brought veteran outfielder Shannon Stewart into camp on a Minor League contract in February. There wasn't going to be room on the roster for both players, so Johnson understood the odds.
"I prepared myself for it," Johnson said. "In my mind, I've been released a couple times already. Once we signed Stew, it was one of those situations where the two of us, I think, were prepared for either a release or a trade."
The decision to keep Stewart in the fold instead of Johnson simply came down to offense. The Blue Jays believe that the 34-year-old Stewart, who is a career .298 hitter, can add more to Toronto's lineup than Johnson, especially if the situation in left field eventually strays from a platoon scenario.
"The best way to describe it from our end," Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi said, "in how we came to the conclusion to go with Stew over Reed, is every time we play the Yankees and the Red Sox, we just see those lineups and they're just prolific offensive lineups.
"It really just came down to what we thought was the better offensive player. We're going to miss Reed's defense and we're going to miss a lot of grittiness about him, but at this point, we decided to go with offense over anything else."
Since Johnson was given his unconditional release, the Blue Jays are only responsible for roughly $546,000 of the $3.275 million he was scheduled to make in 2008. When Stewart is transferred to Toronto's 25-man roster, his salary will rise to $1.5 million, with the potential to earn another $250,000 in performance bonuses this season.
Ricciardi noted that the Blue Jays would've preferred to have resolved the situation with a trade. That's one of the reasons that Toronto waited until this late stage of camp to make the decision. The Jays wanted to provide ample playing to both Johnson and Stewart this spring in order to give other teams a chance to watch the outfielders.
There wasn't a trade to be made -- one reason being that teams still had concerns about Johnson's health. Last season, the 31-year-old missed roughly three months after undergoing surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back in April. Johnson didn't show any lingering issues this spring, but teams still questioned his ability to return to full strength.
"There's a lot of interest in Reed, but there's a lot of concern, too," Ricciardi said. "There wasn't enough interest for someone to make a trade. We would've preferred to have gone that route. I don't think Reed is going to have any problem finding a job."
"Listen, there's more bad things about my job than good things," Ricciardi added later. "And that's one of the bad things, having to tell someone that represents everything that you believe in that you don't have a spot for him. Today wasn't a fun day for me."
Johnson was a 17th-round selection by Toronto in the 1999 First-Year Player Draft, and he spent parts of the past five seasons with the big league club. In his career with the Jays, Johnson hit .281 with a .342 on-base percentage over 610 games, serving as a left fielder and leadoff man.
The highlight of Johnson's tenure with Toronto came in 2006, when he led the team with a .319 average and ranked first among American League leadoff men with a .390 on-base percentage. Last season, though, Johnson's performance suffered in light of the early-season back injury.
After Johnson returned to the lineup in July last year, he struggled to regain his form at the plate, and he wasn't able to run as well as before the operation. In 79 games last year, Johnson hit .236 with two home runs and 14 RBIs, leading the Blue Jays to explore other options this spring.
"Obviously, if I had gone out and hit and had another year like I did the previous year," Johnson said, "I don't think we'd be having this conversation right now. I don't know if [the Jays] lost faith, but I think the way I came into Spring Training this year, I thought I played pretty well and played very well defensively."
Shortly after Toronto's position players reported to Spring Training in February, the Jays signed Stewart and invited him to camp on a Minor League contract. In November, before the Jays initially re-signed Johnson, Toronto extended a more lucrative offer to Stewart, who declined with the hope that he'd net a multi-year deal.
As the winter wore on, a better offer never came up for Stewart, who hit .290 over 146 games with Oakland last season. Stewart switched agents after the offseason debacle and agreed to Toronto's subsequent proposal. Ricciardi said that Stewart could potentially see time as the leadoff hitter -- a role currently filled by shortstop David Eckstein.
On Sunday, Stewart learned that he made the Jays' Opening Day roster, but he had mixed feelings, considering he and Johnson are friends.
"It's not like I'm jumping for joy," said Stewart, who also spent time with the Jays from 1995-2003. "I'm happy that I'm going to be part of this team, but part of me is sad that a friend of mine and somebody I'm close with had to get released.
"I just came in and saw Reed and he told me he got released. Wow, man. I didn't expect that. I thought it'd be a trade or something. That's what I was hoping."
Johnson is hoping that his showing this spring will help him land a job elsewhere. In 16 Grapefruit League games with Toronto, he hit .289 with a .333 on-base percentage, showing no signs that he's hindered by the back injury he suffered a year ago.
"The way I've been playing of late, it's good for me in the sense that there's a lot of teams out there," Johnson said. "If they had scouts out there watching me, they know that I'm back and they don't have to worry about any existing problems with my back."
Johnson added that he was really looking forward to suiting up for the Blue Jays this season, in which Toronto has hopes of making a run at the postseason.
"We've got a good group of guys and that's what's tough," Johnson said. "I've been a part of some good teams and some bad teams here. We've been through a lot, and to be here when the organization completely turns it around, I think would be nice.
"It didn't work out that way. Now my job is to go wherever I go and try to make an impact there."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.