The former IU second baseman was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the ninth round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft June 5 and has flourished with his new organization.
On draft night, though, it wasn’t clear if he would have the immediate opportunity to prove himself to a major league organization.
Prior to the draft, Johnson had said he would return to IU for his senior season if he was not picked within the first 10 rounds. He got the call from Chicago’s south-side team just in time.
“It was awesome,” Johnson said of being picked. “I think everyone around me was more excited than I was. It didn’t really set in until probably a day or two afterwards, and I was just ready to go and play again. I missed so many games this year that I just want to play, so I was just excited to get out here in Montana as soon as possible.”
Johnson said several teams called him and expressed interest in selecting him prior to the ninth round, but the contracts they offered him were not the best fit. In the end, he is happy the White Sox selected him.
“I kind of figured it would happen at some point later in the first round maybe, if the situation was right,” he said. “Luckily the White Sox called me and everything, and it worked out pretty good.”
On June 12, Johnson signed a contract with the White Sox worth $127,600. Shortly thereafter, he was assigned to the organization’s rookie ball affiliate, the Great Falls Voyagers in Great Falls, Mont.
Johnson has picked up where he left off before having elbow surgery March 7 that limited him to 24 games this past season with IU. He hit just .212 during the injury-shortened season but has regained the hitting stroke that earned him 2012 preseason All-American recognition.
Through 24 games with the Voyagers, Johnson is hitting .313 with a home run and 11 RBI. He leads the team with 22 runs scored and nine stolen bases.
“When we first signed him and he came down to minicamp, they said he had elbow surgery,” Voyagers Hitting Coach Charles Poe said. “I saw him on a different field, how he was hitting — nothing really stood out to me until I got him in the cage one-on-one. I got to see how he controls the bat. He was coming through the ball a lot better than some of the guys I saw early on.”
Along with a fundamentally sound swing, Johnson said confidence is the biggest factor contributing to his early success in the minor leagues.
“I think that what it really comes down to out here is that you have to know that you belong here, and you can’t just come in here and be scared and look around you,” he said. “Once you start doing that and start doubting yourself, that’s when you start having issues.”
As for adjusting to life in the minors, Johnson’s manager, Ryan Newman, said he is impressed with his second baseman so far.
“It’s a grind. This is the first time these guys ever come to BP (batting practice) every day, and we expect them to play every day,” Newman said. “It’s tough to mentally and physically get adjusted to pro ball. So far, he’s made that adjustment really well.”
The adjustment has paid off, allowing Johnson to show off his all-around game.
“He is a tremendous athlete,” Newman said. “He’s got lots of skills. He’s a good defender. His range is outstanding at second base. He can run. He’s right in the middle of the lineup and is handling the bat well.”
Athleticism can be a huge asset on defense. Johnson’s, for instance, allows him to make highlight-reel plays.
“He’s really working hard on his defense,” Poe said. “He’s making extraordinary plays already and he’s got a little highlight reel working already. But he’s still working with some instructors on routine plays, staying down more, using his legs.”
As Poe alluded to, Johnson’s athleticism sometimes betrays him. He leads the team in errors with seven and has a fielding percentage of .941.
“He plays at one speed,” Newman said. “There are routine balls he doesn’t have to attack so hard. He needs to slow down on those routine plays.”
While his defense needs refining, Johnson’s ability to hit has been his strong suit since he first put on a Hoosier uniform.
As a freshman in 2010, Johnson hit .312 with career highs in home runs (11) and RBI (42). He hit .335 the following season, but his power numbers dipped to three homers and 34 RBI.
Johnson’s one homer run with the Voyagers would further suggest he has yet to truly realize his power. Poe, for one, doesn’t see that as a negative.
“He’s gonna develop power,” Poe said. “He has a lot of power right now. I’m glad he’s a gap-to-gap guy right now; I don’t wanna see him try to hit home runs at this point in the game. And he puts on an absolute show in BP. If he wants to juice the ball, he absolutely can. He has the power to leave to all fields if he really wants to... The home runs will come.”
While Poe is confident Johnson will develop more power, he wants Johnson to more frequently use another element of his game: speed.
When Johnson steps to the plate, infielders respect his line-drive power and usually play back. He could easily make those infielders pay for their positioning with some well-placed bunts.
“He has that (bunt) and he did it a couple of times since we’ve had him,” Poe said. “I know he can run very well, and that needs to be in his arsenal. He takes a healthy hack and those guys are playing back.”
From a baseball standpoint, Johnson has made the transition from college to the minors well. Though he is miles away from Bloomington and his hometown of Indianapolis, he seems unfazed by the geographic change as well.
“Honestly, it’s not anything different,” he said. “The town I’m in right now, there’s no mountains around here. It kind of looks like Anderson, Ind.”
It also helps that Johnson went from a college team to a team full of college-aged
“The team is awesome,” Johnson said. “I like them a lot. Everyone is really focused on doing well, and it’s been working out.”
Johnson has made sure to stay as focused as his teammates and coaches. He generally takes early hitting for one-on-one instruction with Poe around 2:15 p.m. every game day.
After that, he takes team batting practice and sets his own game day schedule.
“Basically everything is on your own, whatever you’re comfortable with doing,” Johnson said. “I’ve been doing the same routine since I’ve been out here, just trying to stay active all day so I don’t get tired or stiff.”
And while some players in rookie ball might struggle to maintain a routine after having it set by their coaches for so many years, the independence seems to suit Johnson well.
“Everybody wants to keep it going and kind of treat you like it’s a job,” Johnson said. “It’s on you. They don’t really get on you at all. If you make an error, they never say anything to you. It’s kind of like they treat you like a professional now.
"I like it a lot better this way.”
Johnson is treated like a professional because, well, he is one. His potential and upside are off the charts. As long as he continues to dedicate himself to the game, many believe he can one day make it to “The Show.”
“The hitting will come,” Poe said. “If he concentrates on his defense and takes that seriously, he will play in the big leagues.”
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