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Though sidelined, JJ keeps busy as mentor

Right-hander proactive in remaining connected with Padres teammates

SAN DIEGO -- Depending on the day and the schedule, Josh Johnson makes the long walk from the home clubhouse at Petco Park to the bullpen out beyond the center-field fence.

Johnson, of course, isn't heading there to warm up for a game or a between-starts bullpen session -- at least not one scheduled for him.

Johnson, who last month had reconstructive surgery on his right elbow, his second Tommy John surgery since 2007, won't throw a single pitch for the Padres this season -- but he's very determined to help the ones who will.

"Really, the only thing I can do is help these guys out where I can," Johnson said. "Since the team came back from that last road trip, I have watched pretty much every single bullpen [session]. I will do that again when they come back from this trip, too."

The Padres have a pitching coach (Darren Balsley) and a bullpen coach (Willie Blair). And now they have Johnson, who has volunteered his services, his eyes and opinions to the team if they want it.

"I love it," Balsley said. "This wasn't anything we asked him to do, either. Going back to Spring Training … JJ was the same way, watching other guys pitch in the bullpen. I think part of it is he really wants to be a part of this team. He was really looking forward to pitching here.

"He has been very supportive for the pitchers. I've given him free reign to help out where he sees fit."

This isn't the role that San Diego envisioned for Johnson in November, when the club signed him to a one-year deal for $8 million, a potentially high-risk, high-reward deal, with the hopes he would regain his 2010 form when he led the National League with a 2.30 ERA.

Johnson appeared to be in a good place early in Spring Training as he built his stamina and arm strength through his first three starts. He threw 79 pitches March 18 against the Mariners and then woke up the next day with soreness in the back of the elbow -- not in the ligament area.

"It [Spring Training] couldn't have gone any better," Johnson said. "I couldn't have asked for anything more. I hit every step, was recovering great between starts, my elbow felt great, my body felt great."

But the soreness wouldn't subside long enough for Johnson to get far along with his rehabilitation. The pain eventually moved to the ligament area of the elbow, signaling to Johnson that he might be headed toward a second surgery.

After a consultation with Dr. James Andrews, who performed his first Tommy John surgery, Johnson had elbow surgery the next day.

"It's been tough, but you've got be positive about it," Johnson said. "… I've been trying to stay in a good mood, and have pretty much done well with that so far."

Johnson could just as easily slip in for his rehab work before games and leave undetected, free to head home. Instead, he does his early work in the training room, puts on a uniform and heads to the bullpen before each game. During the game, Johnson can often be found on the top rail, cheering on his teammates.

"These guys want to learn, and they've got a real passion for the game," Johnson said. "That's part of the reason I signed here. I love being around that. This is a young team and they love playing baseball … and love to win."

At least one Padres pitcher has gravitated toward Johnson: Casey Kelly, who is currently working his way back from his own Tommy John surgery. He's made two rehabilitation starts so far and has peppered Johnson with questions about how to handle himself during these starts.

"It has been good to get feedback from him, especially after my first two starts with Lake Elsinore," Kelly said. "I would ask him how I should be feeling, since he's come back from the same thing I had and made rehab starts on his way back. The biggest thing is he told me not to worry about the numbers, but how I feel and how the pitches are coming out of my hand."

Kelly, who had his surgery in April 2013, knows that being on the disabled list can feel like you're not part of the team. Kelly spend much of his rehabilitation at Petco Park, if for no other reason than a chance to stay connected with this teammates, coaches and the game itself.

"When you have surgery, it's hard to connect with the game physically," said Kelly. "But I think for JJ, he has been so great for me to have around. He's helped me get a better feel of how things should be going."

Johnson said that from his own experience coming back from elbow surgery, there's an urge to try and do too much too soon.

"With Casey, he's going through what I did trying to come back," Johnson said. "I talked to him during games about the little things, what to expect when you're trying to get back to the big leagues and how you're supposed to feel along the way.

"I know that as a pitcher, you want to always feel perfect. I told Casey that he has to first make sure he feels right and then what happens when you get stretched out and start hitting that 80- and 90-pitch mark for the first time."

The Padres hold a $4 million option on Johnson for next season, one they'll have to eventually decide if they'll exercise. A lot of that will have to do with where he is in his rehab process this offseason. Johnson, 30, wants to pitch again, and he would love to do so with San Diego and not elsewhere.

And if for some reason that doesn't work out, Johnson might just have another potential career eventually awaiting him.

"Maybe it's just lending another eye to those guys who are already there. Or maybe there is something that I can add that will help," Johnson said. "I figure it can't hurt. I like to hear what Bals has to say and to see what different guys are working on at any given time."

Corey Brock is a reporter for Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter.
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