HOUSTON — Astros third baseman Chris Johnson turned heads over the course of last season and proved he’s capable of being an All-Star and franchise-caliber player after hitting .308 with 11 homers, 52 RBI, 40 runs scored, 22 doubles and an .818 OPS in 94 games en route to being named the club’s Rookie of the Year by the Houston chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA).
Johnson, 26, dazzled fans and the organization with a stellar Spring Training, and despite making the Opening Day roster, he took a temporary back seat to veteran Pedro Feliz, who held the starting job at third base for nearly three months while the young slugger returned to Triple-A Round Rock — only to tear up the Pacific Coast League.
He hit .329 with eight homers and 33 RBI in 38 games for the Express, and it became obvious with Feliz struggling that Johnson was ready for a bigger opportunity than before on the major league level.
After being swept by the Texas Rangers at Minute Maid Park over a three-game weekend series (June 18-20), Astros general manager Ed Wade informed the media of his decision to go younger by purchasing the contracts of Jason Castro and Jason Bourgeois, as well as recalling Johnson.
That opened the door for Johnson and Castro, and later, first baseman Brett Wallace, to help re-energize the team and start building around young veterans Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence upon the trades of franchise icons Roy Oswalt (Philadelphia Phillies) and Lance Berkman (New York Yankees).
Houston improved and became more competitive down the stretch, and with the offseason additions of infielders Clint Barmes and Bill Hall, it gives manager Brad Mills more pop in the lineup, which is crucial for a team that finished last in the NL in home runs.
The NL Central has transformed into a much stronger division, in general, this offseason with the additions of 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke (Milwaukee Brewers), Shaun Marcum (Brewers), Matt Garza (Chicago Cubs), Carlos Peña (Cubs), Edgar Rentería (Cincinnati Reds) and Berkman (St. Louis Cardinals), meaning the Astros must rely heavily on their young talent to step up in order to compete.
“We try not to think about personal goals,” Johnson said following a guest appearance on Astroline Wednesday night. “If we’re winning, that’s our first objective. We’ve got a young team, but we need to step up and play. Age really can’t play a factor.”
Johnson represents a powerful voice in the Astros’ young clubhouse due to his strong work ethic and determination to be the club’s franchise third baseman — a position filled with instability over the years outside of Ken Caminiti and Morgan Ensberg’s 2005 All-Star season.
“I’m trying to work and play my butt off every night,” he said. “Hopefully, I play well and we win some games. The fans will appreciate that and hopefully I can stick around for a long time.”
As the Astros prepare for the 2011 campaign, Johnson views the backbone of the team being his teammates’ hungry attitudes and overall willingness to compete hard each game.
For Johnson personally, there’s something in particular that motivates him to work even harder to be a valuable asset for the Astros.
“The last two years I’ve been here, we’ve always seen somebody clinch right in front of us,” Johnson said. “First year, it was Philly, and then last year, it was Cincinnati. That’s one of the things I want to be a part of. That’s the thing that gets me going and fired up.
“The thought of doing that as a team and celebrating as a team as we’re heading to the playoffs is what gets me ready to play every day.”
For the latest Houston Astros news, click on the Subscribe button at the top of the page. Also, be sure to follow Stephen Goff on Facebook and Twitter, or write [email protected].