Johnson impressing Bucs as youngest guy in camp

February 21st, 2024

This story was excerpted from Alex Stumpf’s Pirates Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

BRADENTON, Fla. -- One look at Termarr Johnson's T-shirt showed where his priorities were this winter. The first was what was emblazoned on the front of the shirt: A construction sign reading “Run Prevention Zone,” a nod to his improving defense at second base, where he focused on his footwork and his quickness to get to the ball.

The second was that the T-shirt was a little snug on him. It’s been about 19 months since the Pirates made him the No. 4 overall pick in the 2022 Draft. He’s packed on some muscle since then, filling out his 5-foot-8-inch frame. Some of that was expected when the Pirates drafted him out of high school. Some of that was a response after going through his first full professional season a year ago.

“It was definitely different on my body,” Johnson said when reflecting on last year. “A lot of wear and tear, but I had a lot of fun.”

This is Johnson’s second Major League Spring Training, but he barely got a taste of it a year ago after suffering a right hamstring strain in the first days of camp. One week of Spring Training 2024 is in the books, and it’s already going better the second time around, taking batting practice and fielding drills with players several years his senior -- and looking comfortable doing so.

“Watching him take ground balls is impressive,” manager Derek Shelton said. “The way he moves his feet. It's exciting to see a young guy like that within our group.”

Johnson’s patience at the plate flies in the face of what most teenagers do in their first year of pro ball. His swing is one of the prettiest in camp, modeled after hitters like Robinson Canó, George Brett and Barry Bonds -- seemingly perfected after years of working with his older brother, Tervont.

The swing is part Bonds, and the approach at the plate is part Bonds, too. Johnson became the first teenager to draw at least 100 walks in a Minor League season since at least 2005, drawing 101 free passes and posting a .422 on-base percentage in 2023, adding 18 home runs over 105 games at Single-A Bradenton and High-A Greensboro. He managed to hit those figures despite missing the first chunk of the season because of the hamstring strain, and then needing some time to get his timing back.

“Every pitch of every at-bat is different. You have to go about it differently,” Johnson said about his approach. “You understand what the pitcher’s trying to do. You understand what you’re trying to do. You try to make a plan and stick to that plan.”

He has far more resources now as a pro to scout and research pitchers, which helped him develop those plans at the plate. For a team that emphasizes hunting the right pitches and knowing the strike zone as a Major League hitter, Johnson is showing Pittsburgh what it wants to see.

“With what he did last year, the walk rates, the swing rates -- for a 19-year-old kid, you don't see that,” Shelton said.

Johnson likely isn’t going to make the Pirates' Opening Day roster. That’s pretty uncontroversial, especially considering there’s a full-blown second base competition this spring that is mainly between Liover Peguero, Nick Gonzales and Jared Triolo. But it might not be too long before Johnson gets on the Major League radar.

He finished last season with Greensboro, and assuming all goes well, a trip to Double-A Altoona seems very likely at some point in 2024. It might not be long before the youngest guy in camp gets to call himself teammates with some of the team’s top prospects with the Curve.

He got a step closer to the Majors last year, even after not really getting his first Spring Training. Now comes the next challenge.

“I was happy I got a chance to play a long year of baseball, and I was able to be healthy throughout that year,” Johnson said. “I’ll clap my hands to that, but I’m looking forward to the next year, the next game, the next pitch. Understanding that it’s something I need to do this year, each game, to help the team win.”