Reds' Johnson enjoying fiesta in AFL

November 2nd, 2021

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Ivan Johnson got all of his fourth home run of the Arizona Fall League season on Monday -- and he knew it.

As the Reds’ No. 16 prospect per MLB Pipeline descended the home dugout steps at Surprise Stadium, the Saguaros’ newest fad was waiting for him: a decked-out cowboy hat and he proceeded to parade around in it.

“This team is insane,” Johnson said, laughing. “We’ve been trying to get our celebrations down -- we’ve got our TikTok celly at second base, we got the bullpen shoutout and we just have so much camaraderie.

“We got the cowboy hat with the cactus on the head ... somebody just brought it in one day and it’s kind of taken off from there. We love it. We love home runs. It’s been fun just cheering everybody on. We get after it, it’s a blast.”

Despite the homer, Surprise’s seven-game win streak was snapped in the 8-3 defeat to Scottsdale. While the Saguaros rapped out 10 hits, none had quite the same sound, or distance, as Johnson’s sixth-inning blast, which landed on the grassy knoll beyond the bullpen over the left-field fence.

“I was kind of struggling a little bit to really get my ‘A’ swings off and kind of battling more than I want to,” Johnson said. “I got in a plus count on that one and had a pretty good feel for what he was trying to do and how he was trying to get me. That one just felt good, for sure.”

Johnson homered as a right-handed hitter just twice in 76 plate appearances during the regular season, which he split between Low-A Daytona and High-A Dayton. But the 23-year-old switch-hitter hopes Monday's output yields similar results moving forward.

“It’s tough,” Johnson said. “You go so many days without [hitting] righty, and it’s tough to really trust it sometimes like I do left-handed. I think sometimes you just got to see it fly once before you get back into that groove of letting it go.

“That was a good one to hopefully propel me, keep showing that that right side has got a little juice too.”

While Johnson’s playing time on a stacked Saguaros squad has been somewhat sporadic, he has been thankful for the opportunity to play alongside some of the game’s top prospects.

“It’s cool to kind of pick each other’s brains,” he said. “We got some really good guys, some really good baseball players. It’s been fun to see everybody’s approach and see how they go about the game and everything.”

Selected in the fourth round of the 2019 MLB Draft out of Chipola Junior College, Johnson’s professional opportunities have been limited thus far. But in 125 Minor League games, he has slashed .261/.351/.436 with 22 stolen bases.

“The kid is a gamer,” said Shawn Pinder, Cincinnati's vice president of player development. “He goes out there and grinds, plays the game the right way."

Johnson profiles as a second baseman, which is where he’s seen the vast majority of his playing time in the Fall League. He's a Georgia native, and Reds fans are uniquely familiar with having members of the Peach State hold down the keystone, after Brandon Phillips (Stone Mountain, Ga.) did just that for a decade.

“I started at a lower tier this year, so it’s been cool to see how everyone approaches what they do,” Johnson said. “When I’m out there, I just want to show what I can do, and hopefully somebody likes it and my career keeps going from here.”

While Surprise has been quick to break out the cowboy hat for post home run celebrations, they may need to get creative to recognize Jackson Cluff, who raised his AFL average to .378 following a three-hit game. The Nats’ No. 19 prospect is one of five qualified Saguaros hitters with an OPS above 1.000.

On the other side of the diamond, Scottsdale’s Curtis Mead (TB No. 14) collected two hits and made three dazzling plays with the glove at third. Through 12 Fall League appearances, the native Australian has compiled a .979 OPS with a club-leading eight extra-base hits.