With Johnson, Astros have no worries at third

With Johnson, Astros have no worries at third

HOUSTON -- Third base has been nothing short of a revolving door for the Astros the last few years, with Mike Lamb, Ty Wigginton, Mark Loretta, Geoff Blum and Pedro Feliz among the players who have gotten substantial playing time at the hot corner since All-Star Morgan Ensberg was traded in 2007.

Next year, the Astros will have their fourth different Opening Day third baseman in as many seasons, and they're good with that. Barring injuries or an unforeseen trade, Chris Johnson is the team's third baseman of the here and now.

That's music to the ears of general manager Ed Wade, who enters free agency not having to worry about third base for the first time since he landed in Houston more than three years ago. The Astros certainly have their needs, but a starting third baseman isn't one of them.

Johnson, 26, hit .308 with 11 homers and 52 RBIs last season in 94 games for the Astros and established himself as the starter in the second half of the season. Wade signed Feliz to be the starter last winter, but he was benched in June in favor of Johnson and eventually traded to St. Louis.

"We thought the experience Chris got last year was really valuable, and we thought he responded well and took advantage of every opportunity," Wade said. "He knows what it's all about at this point in time, and we expect him to benefit from the experience.

"He put together good numbers in this organization and got his feet on the ground at the Major League level and continues to improve. That's certainly our hope and expectation going into next season, is that Chris comes to Spring Training and gets ready to be a front-line starter."

Johnson, the son of Red Sox coach Ron Johnson, made his Major League debut with the Astros in 2009, but didn't play much. He had a tremendous spring this year and made the Opening Day roster, thanks in part to a knee injury to Lance Berkman.

Feliz saw time at first base against left-handers with Berkman out, allowing Johnson to make some occasional starts at third. But Johnson's season was quickly derailed when he went on the 15-day disabled list April 20 with a right intercostal strain.

When Johnson was healthy, Berkman was back in the lineup for the Astros and they had no room for him on the roster for him. He went to Triple-A Round Rock and hit .329 with eight homers and 33 RBIs and forced the Astros to call him up, especially with Feliz's struggles at the plate.

Johnson led all Major League rookies with a .308 batting average (minimum 300 at-bats) and batted .316 after the All-Star break with 11 homers and 44 RBIs. He started all but three games after the All-Star break and wound up with 89 starts under his belt. He struggled at times defensively, committing 18 errors for a .908 fielding percentage, but the Astros are confident he will continue to improve with the glove.

Thanks to Johnson's breakout season, Wade is able to turn his attention elsewhere this offseason -- the team would like to add offense in the middle infield and a starting pitcher. Wade still needs to address who will be Johnson's backup in 2011, but the starting spot is set.

"We're going to have to pay attention and try to find a utility guy that can play third base and fill in when Chris needs some time off," Wade said.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.