The free agent first baseman was signed Monday to a minor-league contract with an invitation to the Major League training camp by the Indians, who also locked up 25 roster players to one-year deals.
Johnson played only 24 games in 2010 for the New York Yankees before injuring his right wrist and going to the disabled list for the eighth time in nine seasons. He had three surgeries on the wrist, the most recent in February by Dr. Thomas Graham at the Cleveland Clinic.
The 32-year-old will continue rehabilitation at extended spring training when the Indians break camp. If he joins Cleveland during the season, a club option for 2012 kicks in to his contract.
"We need to get him healthy first," manager Manny Acta said after the Indians played to a 16-16 tie against the Chicago White Sox in Glendale, Ariz. "I don't think it's a secret what Nick can do. He's an on-base percentage machine, a very good first baseman. But right now, that's irrelevant until he finishes his rehab."
Johnson has a career average of .270 in 794 games for the Yankees, Washington Nationals and Florida Marlins. In 2006 with Washington, he hit .290 with 46 doubles, 23 homers, 77 RBIs and 110 walks. As mentioned, the Indians like his .401 career on-base percentage.
Brantley, tabbed to start in center field in place of veteran Grady Sizemore, played in four of the first five exhibition games, but has been sidelined since Thursday.
"Michael has some lower-half soreness," Acta said. "It is not a major concern, but he's one of our everyday players, so we took precaution. He'll be in the starting lineup Tuesday."
Brantley, part of the blockbuster trade that sent CC Sabathia to Milwaukee in June 2008, has an opportunity as Sizemore recovers from microfracture surgery on his left knee. Brantley split 2010 between Triple-A Columbus and Cleveland, where he hit .292 over 46 games after Aug. 6.
Acta said Santana, whose rookie year was cut short by a torn ligament in his left knee, will begin playing some first base. The switch-hitter had surgery Aug. 6 and has not had any problems in camp.
"He'll start at first [Wednesday against San Diego] and we'll give him more time there," Acta said. "He's going to play at first base during the season, mostly to keep his legs fresh and give [Matt] LaPorta a rest."
"He's got good hands and fields grounders well," Acta said. "It's a matter of learning the little things, when to trail runners, hold them on, those things."
Also signed were catcher Lou Marson; right-handers Carlos Carrasco, Frank Herrmann, Josh Judy, Corey Kluber, Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister, Vinnie Pestano, Hector Rondon, Mitch Talbot and Jess Todd; left-handers Kelvin De La Cruz, Nick Hagadone, David Huff and Tony Sipp; infielders LaPorta, Jason Donald, Jared Goedert, Jayson Nix and Luis Valbuena; and outfielders Ezequiel Carrera, Trevor Crowe, Shelley Duncan and Nick Weglarz.
Acta said Goedert has been knocked out of competition for third base job. The rookie will be sidelined "a couple weeks" with a strained right oblique, then sent to the minor-league camp.