He came to the Yankees system this past November after four years in the Atlanta Braves chain. He was Atlanta’s top pick in 2006 out of Panama City, Fla., signed to a $1.375 million bonus – the fourth-largest in Braves history – as a power prospect.
Scouts admired his power, but had questions about his pitch recognition and a hitch in his swing. Normal questions for an 18-year-old prospect at that time.
The Braves brass liked Johnson’s work-ethic and determination to improve. The likable Johnson hit 97 home runs in four seasons in the Atlanta system. He also struck out nearly 700 times. After a topsy-turvy 2010 season in which he batted .212 (73-for-344) with 18 homers, 60 RBIs and 151 strikeouts between Class-AA Mississippi and Class-A Myrtle Beach, the Braves shipped him to the Yankees last Nov. 19 for cash considerations.
“I remember the day I was traded,’’ said Johnson. “After the Braves told me I was going to the Yankees. (Yankees general manager) Brian Cashman called me to welcome me to the organization. He talked to me for an hour, told me about the system and their plans.”
“The fact that he took an hour out of his day, which had to be busy, to talk to me, and welcome me, made me feel real good.’’
Johnson, still just 22, and, as both fans and Eastern League foes have seen, still has that majestic power. He also still strikes out a lot – 89 in 195 at-bats – but major progress is being made. As the Thunder (36-23) have surged into first place in the Eastern League East, Johnson has been one of the catalysts.
In his last 10 games, Johnson is hitting .381 (16-for-42) with four homers – two in his last two games at Reading – and has driven home 13 runs. He is batting .231 (45-for-195) for the season. And while his OPS is a solid .743, his OBP, at .276, could use a boost.
“I feel good, and I feel like things are coming around,’’ said Johnson. “What I am really enjoying about playing here, and I have since I’ve been in the Yankees system, is how the coaches work with you to make you better.”
“With the Braves, I sometimes thought it was the type of thing where you played, and if you make it, you make it and if you don’t, you don’t.”
“Here, I feel I am getting every chance to improve and every chance to get the most out of my talent.”
Johnson reminds one of Dave Kingman who, during his big-league career that spanned from 1971-1986, hit 442 home runs and struck out 1,816 times. He turned in an exceptional season with the Chicago Cubs in 1979, batting .288 (153-for-589), belting 48 homers and driving in 115 runs.
Cubs brass in those days simply wanted Kingman to be more selective, not try to hit every pitch out and just to make contact. The Yankees are following the same procedure with Johnson. If he becomes a modern version of the 1979 Kingman, the Yankees will be quite pleased.
“Cody is starting to be more selective and, more importantly, he is making better contact,’’ said Thunder manager Tony Franklin. “We need him to put the ball in play. If he keeps doing that, the home runs will come.’’
“Contact is the key,’’ he said. “If I take what they give me, the home runs will come. I spent too much time earlier in my career trying to hit everything out.’’
Over the past few weeks, Johnson has become an opposing hitter teams have to worry about. His effort in the recent New Hampshire series – in which he was 8-for-14 with four RBIs – helped the Thunder to a sweep. He has five multi-hit games in his last 10.
“I just have to keep doing what I’m doing,’’ he said.
The Thunder have another potential power prospect who just arrived in former 2006 top Boston pick Jason Place. The Yankees are aiming to work with him in the manner that they have with Johnson.
They know, as with Kingman in 1979, what the payoff could be.
ROMINE SIDELINED: Thunder catcher Austin Romine will miss at least the next week – and likely a bit more – with what is being termed a “mild concussion.’’
He sustained this as the result of a collision at home plate in the recent Altoona series.
It’s a situation, and this is being recognized over all athletics, that must be handled carefully. Everyone wants to see Romine back in the lineup, but healing must take its course. Every individual is different, and the course of return from a concussion is unpredictable.
Here’s hoping Romine recovers as quickly as possible.
FROM MAINE TO OHIO AND VIRGINIA: The Thunder return home for a weekend series with Binghamton, which, under manager Wally Backman, has struggled to a 19-38 start and is 16 games behind the Thunder in the EL East. Yet, the B-Mets have some talented players and are playing hard … Akron’s Tim Fedroff is the EL’s top hitter at .346 (71-for-205). Richmond’s Eruc Surkamp has the top ERA with a 3-3, 1.92 mark in 11 starts.