TORONTO -- One of the first things on Alex Anthopoulos' list of priorities this offseason is figuring out what to do at second base and whether Kelly Johnson fits into the club's long-term plans.
Toronto's general manager got a first-hand look at Johnson in 2011 after orchestrating a late-season deal for the veteran infielder -- a player he'd notoriously coveted for the past couple of years.
Johnson's six-week stay in Toronto amounted to an extended audition, and now the club must decide whether the pending free agent will be brought back into the fold for 2012 and beyond.
"I thought Kelly did a nice job, and he's definitely in the mix for us," Anthopoulos said at his year-end news conference. "We have an opening, he is a free agent, and in the coming weeks, we'll certainly reach out to his agent and talk to him, but it's hard to characterize where any of that is going to go."
Johnson entered the year with high expectations after hitting .284 with 18 homers and 49 RBIs for the D-backs in 2010. But he got off to a slow start in Arizona and was never quite able to get his season back on track.
The problems were compounded when Johnson was completely caught off-guard by the Aug. 23 trade that sent him to Toronto for veterans Aaron Hill and John McDonald. The D-backs were well on their way to a postseason berth, and Johnson expected to be a major component of any success the club might have.
Instead his playoff aspirations were dashed, and he once again found himself on a young team that was building for the future.
"It was really tough, because last year was kind of that way in Arizona," Johnson said of Toronto's youth movement. "This year with the Diamondbacks, [success] came a lot quicker than anybody thought. It was still fun, even though I wasn't having the kind of year I wanted to have personally.
"It was fun coming to the park, because you kind of knew something could happen every day, and obviously we were in first place. It was really tough leaving."
Johnson took a couple of days after the trade to collect his thoughts. He returned to Phoenix to collect his passport and eventually made the trip north of the border to join his new teammates.
Once there, his transition to the American League went a lot smoother than originally expected, in part because he was able to quickly develop a strong working relationship with hitting coach Dwayne Murphy.
The two built a rapport in a short period of time, and Johnson was able to finish his otherwise disappointing campaign on a high note, hitting .270 with an on-base percentage of .364 in 33 games with Toronto.
Now he is set to hit free agency for the first time in his career. It's a moment that most players relish, but at the end of the year, Johnson sounded apprehensive about the process and the uncertainty it creates.
"It's different for [the top-tier players] and probably a lot more enjoyable, but we'll just have to see what happens and take it day by day," he said. "I'm just going to have to see how it comes. Obviously, you want to try to do what's best for your family, but at the same time you want to go somewhere you're going to be happy and comfortable."
The Blue Jays are expected to offer Johnson arbitration, which would put him in line for a raise over the $5.85 million he earned in 2011.
Because he is a Type-B free agent, he would net the Blue Jays a compensation pick in next year's First-Year Player Draft if he departs for another team.
Stockpiling Draft picks is something Anthopoulos has emphasized during his time in Toronto, but when it comes to Johnson, there's at least a small chance he will have to rethink that philosophy.
This offseason's free-agent market is particularly bare at second base. Johnson headlines the list, which also includes Mark Ellis and Clint Barmes. Other players, such as Hill and Brandon Phillips, could be added to the mix, but their status is unknown because of club options on their contracts.
Anthopoulos conceded that if Johnson departs, the Blue Jays would have to fill the void either through free agency or trade. Top prospect Adeiny Hechavarria is expected to spend a full season with Triple-A Las Vegas in 2012, and the club does not have any internal candidates ready to take over at the Major League level.
The lack of viable replacements and Johnson's ability to hit for power could increase the club's desire to bring him back.
"It is a luxury, and I think when you look around at our division, second base is a power position, and he fits that mold," manager John Farrell said of Johnson, who has 39 home runs over the past two seasons. "That's not to say we have to match other teams, but within the context of putting a guy in the lineup that can create some damage with one swing -- he has that."
Johnson was quick to praise the direction the Blue Jays have taken under Anthopoulos. Johnson sees an up-and-coming organization with a lot of young pitching and the type of offensive prowess that could lead to a playoff run in the near future.
He's unsure as to how much interest the Blue Jays will have in him this offseason, but he's more than willing to sit down and discuss a deal that would keep him in Toronto for the foreseeable future.
"I'd definitely love to hear what they have to say, what they want to do and go from there," Johnson said. "It's going to be interesting. I haven't heard anything and can't really speculate until there's something to talk about. It's something that's going to be interesting. I'll probably have to have a bit more patience than I'm used to. But I'm excited."