Outfielder Johnson soaks up wisdom from RCDP

Outfielder was one of four prospects selected by Indians to participate in annual program

January 14th, 2020

CLEVELAND -- The Indians’ outfield could end up being a gigantic jigsaw puzzle in 2020, and No. 16 prospect is hoping to be the missing piece.

The 24-year-old outfielder was one of four players the Indians sent to the Rookie Career Development Program last week in Miami. Alongside left-hander (No. 15) and right-handers (No. 20) and (No. 21), Johnson knows he’s one step closer to reaching his ultimate goal. During a media session, he was asked what he’s most excited about for the 2020 season, and he didn’t think twice before giving his answer.

“Playing in the big leagues,” Johnson said with a slight chuckle.

Johnson was traded to the Indians last offseason as a piece in the deal that sent Yan Gomes to the Nationals. He hadn’t yet reached Triple-A, but the Tribe was curious to see the player they received at big league Spring Training, and he did not disappoint.

Johnson quickly caught Indians manager Terry Francona’s attention with his enthusiasm and offensive numbers. In 17 spring games with the Tribe in 2019, Johnson hit .259 with a 1.005 OPS, one triple, two homers, nine RBIs and eight runs scored. The team knew heading into last February that Johnson wouldn’t be breaking camp with the Major Leaguers at the end of the six-week stint in Arizona, since he was still inexperienced, but he certainly put himself on the club’s radar.

“There’s so much to like about him,” Francona said last March. “Work ethic, the kind of kid he is. When you see him play well and you say, ‘Whoa, that’s what that could be.’ ... It takes time sometimes to be able to hit an off-speed pitch or a breaking ball or even to be able to lay off, but a guy that can hit a fastball, it allows you to dream a little bit.”

Those impressive spring numbers translated into the regular season. For Double-A Akron, Johnson hit .253 with an .872 OPS, 10 homers and 33 RBIs in 39 games. He was called up to Triple-A Columbus on May 25, and he went on to log a .306 average with an .867 OPS and 27 doubles, five triples, nine homers and 44 RBIs in 84 contests.

“I mean he’s on our radar, we love the kid,” Francona said on the day Johnson was promoted to Columbus. “I think players kind of dictate maybe the pace sometimes of when you’re called up. … We got to know him this spring. We loved him as a kid, and then you start to see how he’s playing, and it makes you excited.”

Johnson got a quick taste of what it will be like to play at Progressive Field when he was selected to the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game last July with fellow Indians prospect .

“It was a good experience just to be in your own city, your own park where you’re going to play in the future,” Johnson said. “So all the support from the fans, it was crazy. I liked it.”

Now that Johnson was selected to attend the Rookie Career Development Program last week, it’s even more clear that the Indians believe the outfielder is on the brink of breaking into the Majors. MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo explains the RCDP as an event in which all 30 Major League clubs send “up-and-coming players on the cusp of reaching the big leagues to help them avoid the kinds of speed bumps or pitfalls that can keep them from reaching their on-field potential.”

“It means a lot to be invited,” Johnson said. “Obviously, the Indians see something in me, so that’s always good. It’s a good program. There’s a lot of information being thrown at you at one time, but it’s good information at the same time. So you take bits and pieces from each segment they have, so it’s cool.”

Just how close is he from making his Major League debut? Let’s try to put this puzzle together.

The Indians have , , , , and healthy and ready to play. (torn ACL in right knee) is expected to rejoin the Tribe between April and June. Cleveland has said it would like to try Reyes in right field, so he can be more than just a designated hitter. If Reyes begins the season in right and Mercado is in left or center, that just leaves one spot for one of the remaining big league outfielders on the roster. It may be tough to see how Johnson would fit in right off the bat, but that doesn’t mean he won’t find his role shortly after the season gets under way.

The Indians went through a similar process last year with Mercado -- who, after a standout spring, began the year at Triple-A while the Tribe attempted to sort out its outfield. But after Mercado got the call in May, he became one of the most impactful players on the team. Johnson may end up following in those footsteps.

“We're really excited about the development Daniel made last year and are excited to continue to see his growth and development this year,” Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said. “We do think he's got a chance to impact his Major League team. Exactly when that will be is hard to predict, but we're really excited by the progress he made last year, and we're looking forward to seeing him again this spring.”