Nick Johnson: “For me, it comes down to health”

SARASOTA, Fla. - How do you know when you’ve had too many surgeries?

First baseman Nick Johnson says he’s undergone three or four of them on his right wrist. When I asked how long ago he had a tendon removed, he replied, “I’d be guessing.”

When you can’t recall the exact year that a tendon came out of your wrist, that’s a lot of surgeries.

The Orioles signed Johnson to a minor league contract a week before spring training started, figuring it was a low-risk move for a player who can get on base if he can get off the disabled list. Johnson didn’t play in the majors last season, appearing in 53 games with Triple-A Columbus and batting .201/.316/.332 with six doubles, six homers and 13 RBIs.

Johnson has dealt with back, wrist and leg injuries during his nine seasons in the majors. He didn’t play in 2007 because of a broken femur and missed most of 2008 with a torn ligament in his wrist. He underwent one of those wrist surgeries in 2010 after getting into 24 games with the Yankees.

No interview with Johnson is complete without a line of questioning regarding his health issues. Few interviews can begin without one of those questions. He’s braced for it each time a reporter approaches his locker.

I started off by asking why he chose to sign with the Orioles and whether he saw a true opportunity to compete for the first base job, and he replied, “First, for me, I’d just like to stay healthy. It’s been a problem for me in the past.”

It always comes back to the injuries.

“I’m healthy now, so we’ll see what happens,” Johnson continued. “There weren’t a lot of teams giving me an opportunity. I’m just happy to be here and go play. See what happens.”

Chris Davis is regarded as the favorite to start at first base on opening day, but it’s not promised to him. Does Johnson think he has a legitimate shot to unseat Davis?

“For me, it comes down to health,” he replied.

See what I mean?

“I’m trying to take care of my stuff here and when I go out there, have fun and see what I’ve got,” he said.

Is this the healthiest that Johnson has been in recent memory?

“It’s been a while,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of problems with my wrist in the past. The last few years it’s been a problem. I don’t remember the last time it’s felt like this. It feels really good right now. Not a lot of exercise going into it. No tape or devices worn to hit. I can just concentrate on the ball. I don’t have to worry about cutting it off because my wrist hurts. It’s hard enough to hit without this thing going on. I’m just happy I’m feeling good.”

Johnson wasn’t able to work the way he wanted last year because of the slow recovery from surgery, and the pain didn’t completely subside until late in the season. He was fine if he squared up the ball, but a foul tip or a missed swing “weren’t good,” he said.

Johnson has been hitting since January after taking a break, and he’s been impressive in the cage this spring.

“I’m just trying to get that swing back,” he said. “It’s nice not to have to really worry too much about this (wrist) and just let your hands go where they go.”

Maybe we’ll find out where good health takes him.

It’s quite possible that he ends up at the 25-man roster.

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