How to stand out in crowded OF? Hit 2 HRs

Prospect Johnson making it fun while showcasing his tools with Tribe

March 10th, 2021

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Indians have Oscar Mercado, Bradley Zimmer, Jordan Luplow (who’s still battling an ankle sprain), Josh Naylor, Eddie Rosario, Harold Ramirez, Ben Gamel and Billy Hamilton all competing for a spot in the outfield this spring. So, where does that leave ?

Johnson has been trying to showcase his tools since he was acquired by the Indians before the 2019 season, and he gave them plenty to pay attention to in the Tribe's 9-2 win over the Rangers on Tuesday with his first two home runs of the spring.

“There’s been some days where he looks like the best player on the field,” manager Terry Francona said. “We’ve seen him hit fastballs. [On Tuesday] he hit an offspeed pitch for the first one -- for the home run -- and then he hit a fastball the second time. There’s a lot of excitement in that body.”

Johnson -- ranked by MLB Pipeline as the club's No. 18 prospect in 2020 -- is in his third big league camp with the Tribe and is in the middle of a tight position battle for right field with a handful of players, including Naylor, Luplow and Gamel. However, he’s not allowing himself to attempt to do too much with the time he’s given.

“I mean, obviously, I want to win that job, but we make it fun,” Johnson said. “The guys around us are all cool. … At the end of the day, we want all of us to succeed. Each and every person out there, we want them to do good. You don’t really think about too much. Just have fun with it and go with the flow.”

Johnson has displayed athleticism in each of the camps he’s participated in. He has the ability to move to center field and would be another speedster on the basepaths. So, what’s the problem? He made his debut in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season but played in just five games for the Tribe last year. He spent the rest of his time at the alternate training site without playing in competitive games for nearly a full year.

That may cause the Indians to hesitate to carry him on the Opening Day roster.

“It’s not a fault of his,” Francona said. “It’s just young guys need to play. The speed of the game, as you move up levels, becomes quicker, especially at the Major League level. And just the repetitions slow it down for guys. And when guys miss that, it’s hard to replicate that.”

Johnson’s offensive numbers jumped off every page they were listed on in 2019, as he hit .253 with an .872 OPS, seven doubles, two triples and 10 homers in 39 games with Double-A Akron. He quickly was promoted to Triple-A Columbus, where his success continued through 84 more contests, batting .306 with an .867 OPS. And even with limited playing time/practices in '20, Johnson still feels as though he continued building on the skills that could make him a Major League outfielder.

“Just being versatile,” Johnson said. “I got good arm strength, I can run, a little bit of everything, you know? Just really playing my game. Let the tools stand out for themselves.”

The Indians may lean toward starting Johnson in Triple-A because of his limited play last year. The Tribe knows that Rosario will be the everyday left fielder, and it’ll likely come down to Mercado or Zimmer to win the starting center field job, while Naylor is the leading candidate to be the Opening Day right fielder.

Regardless of whether Johnson breaks camp with the Indians or has to wait until later in the year to make an impact, he believes that the Tribe’s outfield group -- which ranked among the worst in nearly all offensive categories in 2020 among all 30 clubs -- is currently underrated entering '21.

“We’re a younger team than usual,” Johnson said. “Not a lot of solidified guys in the outfield. Kind of a sleeper team, but those sleeper teams always end up on top at some point. Got a good feeling about us this year.”