Let’s take a look at the first pitcher in our series, and one of the newest pitchers on the Giants’ farm.
Chase Johnson: 21 yo, ss-A
HT, WT, B/T: 6-3, 185 | RR
2013: 6 G (3 GS), 1-1, 0.47 ERA, 14 IP, 7 H, 2 BB, 13 K
Chase Johnson was the Giants’ 3rd round selection in this year’s amateur draft, but he’s the only one of the first five San Francisco picks who wasn’t on my recent mid-season top 40 prospects list. There are a few reasons for this. 1) My initial reaction to the Johnson pick was that the Giants were trying to save money to use on later picks (which they did, signing Johnson for $70k under slot), thus following two high school hitters (Arroyo and Jones) with a low-upside college reliever. 2) I just didn’t know that much about him when I put the list together, and really didn’t put much effort into finding out more about him at the time. I guess you could say he got swept into a corner, in a way. 3) He hadn’t yet made his pro debut when I began compiling my list.
Well, Johnson has made his debut now, and has made three starts in the short-season A Northwest League after three relief appearances in the Arizona Rookie League. Word is he’s been hitting low to mid-90’s with his fastball, which he flashed at 97 from time to time this spring in college. So let me get this straight. He’s a college closer with a mid-90’s fastball that the Giants drafted in the 3rd round, and he’s now starting? I’m beginning to think the initial assessment on this kid was very short-sided. That being said, let’s take this as an opportunity to get to know more about Johnson.
Johnson has been on the radar since his high school days in southern California. His tall frame and his live arm had him drafted in the 26th round by Texas in 2010, but he decided to attend Cal Poly instead. He was a difference-maker right away, making 8 starts and 10 relief appearances as a true freshman. In 49 IP, he logged a 2-5 record with a 3.67 ERA and 34k/21bb. The next season, however, Johnson was used purely out of the bullpen, serving as Cal Poly’s closer while also making some extended appearances of 3 and 4 innings. He had a good year, making 25 appearances, recording 8 saves, a 3.34 ERA and 31k/13bb in 35 IP. He also pitched in the Cape Cod League that summer, recording a 3.98 ERA in 20 relief outings.
Johnson was all set for a strong junior season at Cal Poly after his steady showing in 2012. However, things didn’t go as planned for the hard-throwing righty in his final collegiate campaign. He lost his job as closer, a decision that must have been made prior to the season, as he wouldn’t record a single save on the year. That role was given to Reed Reilly, a redshirt-sophomore who the Orioles drafted 15 rounds after Johnson in June. In fact, Johnson didn’t really pitch much at all in 2013. Of 11 pitchers on the Cal Poly staff, he logged more innings than only three. He made 15 appearances, all out of the pen, and had a 2.31 ERA in 23 innings, with 21k/9bb.
There really isn’t any true explanation for why Johnson was essentially demoted to the bench in his junior year. Sure, there are theories that he and his manager had a falling-out, or that he wasn’t healthy. But it’s pretty odd that a 3rd-year player who throws mid-90’s wouldn’t be a go-to guy for a school in the Big West. Either way, the Giants liked what they saw from the kid during his college days, and essentially got a guy with the ability to be a starter and a reliever, with a fresh arm to boot.
The Giants made Johnson their first pitcher selected in the 2013 draft, as well as the first collegiate player. The pick had a slot value of $510,000, but Johnson accepted a deal for $440,000, definitely aiding in the team’s efforts to sign a few guys above slot value later in the draft. Johnson made his professional debut in the Arizona League on June 28, and made two more relief appearances in rookie ball before the Giants promoted him to Salem-Keizer, where he has made three starts. In those three starts, he’s yet to allow a run, allowing only 7 hits, striking out 13 and walking only 2 in 14 innings of work. It’s a very small sample size, but the fact that the Giants are trying Johnson as a starter is quite promising. If he can keep showing good results into August and September, he’s likely to be in the Augusta rotation next year. If that’s the case, then the Giants got great value for a 3rd round pick that otherwise received little fan fare during the draft. If not, they still have a strike-throwing reliever who can dial his fastball up from time to time. Maybe I’ll need to rethink that top 40 come the end of the season.