Former RiverDog plows into majors

Former RiverDog and Tampa Bay Ray Elliot Johnson (right) collides with New York Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli at home during a spring training game in early March. Cervelli broke his wrist on the play.

If there's one lesson to be learned about spring training, it's that playing hard gets you places.

The posterboy for this maxim is a former Charleston RiverDog, Elliot Johnson, a Tampa Bay Rays prospect who touched off a firestorm early in spring training when he plowed into New York Yankees catching prospect Francisco Cervelli in a home plate collision that broke Cervelli's wrist.

New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi was livid and complained that it was a dirty play that had no place in spring training. The play looked like anything you would normally see in midseason, and Tampa Bay coach Don Zimmer defended Johnson saying if you're going to play, play the game right.

Seemingly lost in the discussion was 24-year-old middle infielder who hit .207 in Triple-A last season. Johnson joined the Tampa Bay organization as an undrafted free agent, and though he has had a good minor league career, his name was not going to be found on many hot prospect lists. On top of that, the team didn't have a large signing bonus invested into Johnson, so there was no need to give him a longer look than necessary. This is the kind of player who wants to go all out — needs to go all out — to impress someone. If his dream of making the big leagues was going to happen, Johnson couldn't afford to take any plays off.

As to Girardi's claim that it was a dirty play, it's highly unlikely Johnson was out to hurt anyone. While playing second base at Charleston in 2003 and 2004, Johnson was one of the most approachable players on the team and was not known for instigating on-field incidents. He was selected to play in the South Atlantic League all-star game in 2004 when Charleston made the playoffs for the first time in 16 seasons. Since then, it's been a slow climb through the farm system.

The collision probably helped to make a firm impression on team officials, but hitting .469 this spring and leading the team with 12 runs surely made a long-term impression.

Whatever it was that put him over the top, when the team broke camp, Johnson made the Rays' major league roster.

Getting to the show

RiverDogs manager Torre Tyson believes his roster is littered with future major leaguers, saying five of the current players could advance that far.

If he's right, that's a good sign for Charleston's chances of making the playoffs. The 2004 and 2005 teams both made the postseason and enough time has passed to show how talented those groups were.

In 2004, Charleston finished its affiliation with the Devil Rays in style. Delmon Young, an American League rookie of the year candidate last season, garnered the most attention as one of the top young prospects in the minor leagues. He, outfielder Elijah Dukes, pitchers Jason Hammel, Chad Orvella and Andrew Sonnanstine had all cracked the majors by last season. Johnson's arrival brings the total to six, and there's still an outside chance that first baseman Wes Bankston (now in the A's organization) or outfielder Jason Pridie (Twins) could add to that number.

The 2005 team was Charleston's first with the Yankees, and New York provided the RiverDogs with a stellar pitching staff.

Phil Hughes is in the Yankees' rotation this season. Reliever T.J. Beam had 20 appearances in 2006, and Chase Wright made two starts last season for New York.

It's still expected that Jeff Marquez will be wearing pinstripes soon, and Christian Garcia is considered a possibility down the road.

One final impression

As far as good impressions go, catcher Kyle Anson raised his stock during spring training.

Anson hit .272 in Charleston last season and stood out as one of the top defensive catchers in the league. Baserunners tested his arm only sparingly, and often unsuccessfully.

He got an opportunity to work out with the big league club and was 3-for-9 in eight games for the Yankees. Tyson said Girardi became a big fan of Anson's and lobbied to have him start the season in Double-A. In the end, Anson was sent to high Single-A Tampa, but it can only be good for him that the major league manager singing his praises is a a former catcher.

Reach Bill Henley at 937-5595 or at bhenley@postandcourier.com.