Could Double-A prospect pitch his way onto Opening Day roster?

February 21st, 2024

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

SARASOTA, Fla. -- A 6-foot-1, 205-pound, blond-haired man was sporadically seen sitting at the locker in the furthest back-right corner of the Orioles’ clubhouse at the Ed Smith Stadium complex last spring.

The perfect location for somebody essentially trying to be invisible.

“I was kind of just trying to stay out of everyone’s way,” Seth Johnson recalled. “Just watch from a distance a little bit.”

Johnson is back in Baltimore’s big league camp this spring, stationed at the same locker. But this time, things are different. The 25-year-old wants to be in the picture, and he wants to be noticed -- in a good way.

When Johnson was dealt from the Rays to the Orioles at the 2022 Trade Deadline on Aug. 1 of that year -- as part of the three-team deal that sent Trey Mancini to Houston -- the right-hander was scheduled to undergo Tommy John surgery two days later. When he reported to O’s camp last February, he was only six months removed from the procedure and ready to spend the spring rehabbing, hence his decision to mostly keep in the background.

As it turned out, Johnson was also only six months away from his return to game action.

He made his organizational debut on Aug. 19 in the Rookie-level Florida Complex League. Then, he made four additional rehab starts -- one for Single-A Delmarva, two for High-A Aberdeen and one for Double-A Bowie (which marked his first taste of that level).

“Rehab’s long,” said Johnson, the Orioles’ No. 14 prospect per MLB Pipeline. “They tell you that it’s a whole year, but you don’t really realize how much time you miss until you get back into games. All the bullpens you throw at like 80 percent aren’t exactly the same as when you’ve got a hitter in the box and they’re trying to get a hit and you’re trying to get them out.

“But I think it was good to be able to get into games to show me what I needed to work on and how to be a gamesman again.”

During the offseason and early in spring, Johnson’s focus has been on command and pitch mixing. The best offering in his four-pitch repertoire is a fastball that sits at 94-96 mph and can touch 98 mph. He also uses a slider, curveball and changeup, all effective pitches.

Over his 10 1/3 innings last season, Johnson registered 14 strikeouts, but he also had a 1.35 WHIP with five walks. He’s still learning when it’s time not to force one of his offspeed pitches that may not be working on a given day and instead turn to one of his other offerings.

On Tuesday, Johnson took the Ed Smith Stadium mound for live batting practice and had mixed results. He gave up a hard-hit ball off the center-field wall to Jackson Holliday, but he also struck out MLB Pipeline’s No. 1 overall prospect later in the session.

Everybody in camp is intrigued by the potential of Johnson’s arm and what the future could hold for the righty, who was selected by Tampa Bay with the No. 40 overall pick in Competitive Balance Round A of the 2019 MLB Draft.

“It’s a guy that’s got a really, really good arm,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “The rehab has gone extremely well, and he’s throwing the ball really well out here. A really talented kid.”

General manager Mike Elias also name-dropped Johnson on the first day of workouts last Thursday, when he was talking about the “real interesting pitchers” among the prospects in big league camp.

Could Johnson pitch his way onto Baltimore’s Opening Day roster? Anything is possible this time of year. He’ll get plenty of opportunities to showcase his stuff during Grapefruit League action, and he could participate in Spring Breakout, the prospect showcase that will pit O’s youngsters against the Pirates’ blue-chip talent on March 14.

But Johnson owns only three innings of Double-A experience and has never pitched at the Triple-A level. He understands he’s likely heading to a Minor League affiliate to begin 2024.

Regardless, Johnson is eager for the upcoming season and ready to continue his ascension up the system.

“I feel like I’m in a good spot,” Johnson said. “I trust the team’s judgment in whether I’m ready or not. I mean, you miss a whole year and get 10 innings, it’s kind of a lot to say that I’m ready to play at the highest level. I’m just going to go out there and try to control what I can control and see what happens.”