The player Atlanta took in that draft with the 24th selection – first-baseman/outfielder Cody Johnson – was looked to as a power prospect, an Adam Dunn or Bob Horner type. The Braves were willing to be patient with Johnson.
However, with the quick development of outfielder Jason Heyward and the continued improvement of first baseman Freddie Freeman, mixed with Johnson’s .212 (73-for-344) mark at three levels of the Atlanta system in 2010, the Panama City, Fla., native was deemed expendable.
The Yankees picked up the 22-year-old in a cash deal a few weeks ago. He is eligible for the Major League Rule 5 draft – but is protected in the Triple-A phase – so the feeling is the Yankees will work with Johnson in spring training to harness his potential.
As a left-hander with such power possibilities, it’s easy to see why, at a small price, the Yankees were willing to take a flyer on him.
Johnson is presently on the Class-A Advanced Tampa roster, but his destination could very well be Waterfront Park for at least part of 2011. At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, he both passes the eye test and flashes some athletic ability defensively.
“He (Johnson) could be Adam Dunn,’’ said a National League scout. “He also could be a big bust. It’ll be interesting to see if the Yankees can do anything with him.’’
Johnson admits he takes a “swing hard in case I hit it’’ approach at the plate. This produces home runs – he has hit 94 homers and driven home 309 runs in 456 Minor League games – but also strikeouts, with 629 ion 1,613 at-bats.
My first encounter with Johnson was in the 2007 Appalachian League playoffs, capping off a season in which he batted .305 (74-for-243) with 17 homers and 57 RBIs in 63 games. He was named the www.mlb.com Short-Season Offensive Player of the Year.
The power numbers were there for Class-A Rome of the South Atlantic League in 2008, as he caused pitchers headaches by batting .252 (118-for-468) with 25 homers and 89 RBIs. He did strike out 177 times, but his OPS was a solid .795.
He hit several impressive high line drives that cleared fences for the R-Braves that season.
His 2009 season in the Carolina League featured a .239 average (106-for-444), but 32 homers, 84 RBIs and an impressive OPS of .851. He earned Carolina League All-Star honors with 180 strikeouts.
The Braves looked at 2010 as something of a “make or break’’ year for Johnson, but a hamstring injury sidelined him for two months. He ended up with that .212 average, 18 home runs 60 RBIs. Much of his season was spent at Class-AA Mississippi of the Southern League, where he batted just .189 (44-for-233) with 10 homers and 31 RBIs in 75 games. In 233 at-bats, he struck out 114 times.
Johnson might hit some home runs, but his approach would not lead to much other success in the Eastern League.
The interesting part of all this is Johnson claims the Braves told him not to worry about the strikeouts and swing hard. He also realizes that this approach would not be successful at the higher levels.
As a result, Johnson has little plate discipline. He feels he can hit for a decent average in addition to his power potential. Melky Mesa, ticketed as the Thunder center fielder in 2011, made solid strides in that area in 2010.
Johnson will be an interesting story in spring training. The Yankees will no doubt work with him on pitch recognition and other rudiments of hitting. He has drawn just 182 walks in his 1,613 at-bats. If Johnson can improve in these areas, the Yankees will have a steal in the 22-year-old.
He has the numbers to help the Thunder in 2011. Spring training will tell if he can earn that opportunity.
MATTINGLY PRAISES LAIRD, BANUELOS: While the Phoenix Desert Dogs finished the Arizona Fall League season 11-17, last in East Division , manager Don Mattingly had good words for both outfielder Brandon Laird and left-hander Manny Banuelos.
“Brandon has a lot of power in his bat,’’ said Mattingly of the 23-year-old Laird, who ended the AFL season in a 9-for-42 swoon that lowered his average to .236 (26-for-119). He did, however, drive in 22 runs in 27 games.
The Yankees were also satisfied with his switch to the outfield and will give Laird a chance to earn a bench role in spring training.
Banuelos was 0-2, 3.60 in seven starts and 25 innings for Phoenix, with his fastball topping out at 95 mph. His secondary pitches were also hitting the mark.
“Manny threw real well,’’ said Mattingly. “His fastball is now a plus pitch. He could have a big season next year.’’
Banuelos, who will turn 20 next March 13 in spring training, was 0-1, 3.52 in three 2010 starts with the Thunder and recorded a playoff win at New Hampshire. He will pitch at the top of the Thunder rotation to start 2011.
WINTER LEAGUE ROUNDUP: This week’s BaseLines “Winter League Player of the Week” is infielder Walter Ibarra, who is putting together a strong season for Hermosillo in the Mexican Pacific League.
He has hits in eight of his last 10 games and is batting .291 (32-for-110) in 32 starts. He will be trying to snag a Thunder infield position for 2011 in spring training.
In other news involving Thunder-connected players, infielder Marcos Vechionacchi, hitting .304 (28-for-92) with Magallanes of the Venezuelan League, signed with the Hanshin Tigers, who play out of Osaka in the Japanese Central League. At this point, the 24-year-old needed a fresh start.
Other Thunder-connected players in Winter Baseball include:
- Justin Christian is hitting .376 (62-for-165) with six homers and 20 for Mochis of the Mexican Pacific League in his bid to attract a spring-training invitation from a big-league team.
- Outfielder Colin Curtis checked in with Escogido of the Dominican League and is batting .308 (4-for-13) in three games.
- Outfielder Edwar Gonzalez is batting .300 (9-for-30) with Lara of the Venezuelan League.
- Shortstop Luis Nunez, re-signed by the Yankees, is hitting .231 (3-for-13) for Zulia of the Venezuelan League.
- Infielder Ramiro Pena is batting .211 (8-for-38) for Culiacan in the Mexican Pacific League. He faces a battle with Eduardo Nunez for an infield bench spot on the 2011 Yankees.
- Infielder Jose Pirela, who will be in the Thunder infield mix in 2011, is 4-for-11 (.364) in four games with Zulia of the Venezuelan League after batting .180 (16-for-89) with Phoenix in the AFL.
- Outfielder Francisco Santana is batting .333 (4-for-12) in eight games with Aguilas of the Dominican League.
- Lefty reliever Wilkins Arias is 2-0, 2.08 in 11 appearances with Aguilas.
- Josh Schmidt is 3-2, 2.33 in eight appearances (seven starts) for Zulia. His strikeout/walk ratio is 38-18.
- Eric Wordekemper is 0-0, 6.27, with the best of his 19 relief efforts for Culiacan, coming on the last two weeks.
FROM MAINE TO OHIO AND VIRGINIA: Mark Parent was named Reading’s manager for 2011, while former Phillies and Yankees backup catcher Sal Fasano will pilot New Hampshire next season. Many fans have asked if Tony Franklin will return to the Thunder helm for the fifth year. We should know in a short time. … A Harrisburg Patriot-News report indicates Randy Knorr’s excellent job with the Senators in 2010 has earned him a promotion to Class-AAA Syracuse … EL champion Altoona unveiled a new Web site, logo, caps and uniform. New Hampshire also revealed a new logo … Former Thunder assistant general manager Greg Coleman, who left the club to join former Thunder GM Brad Taylor with the Bowling Green Hot Rods, has left that club to pursue other opportunities. Former New Britain GM John Willi joined the Hot Rods staff.