Prospect Watch: Pierce Johnson making Cubs take notice

Prospect Watch: Pierce Johnson making Cubs take notice
January 26, 2014, 7:30 pm
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Tony Andracki

Pierce Johnson can’t fly under the radar anymore.

A year ago, Johnson could have walked through the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers lobby without getting bombarded by fans. But along with the rest of the organization's top prospects, Johnson was mobbed at the 2014 Cubs Convention, like he was a member of a boy band in the 1990s.

"Once one person gets you, it's like a domino effect," Johnson laughed, admitting it was a good feeling to be recognized.

Johnson said he'd never have fans notice him off the field until he started last season at Class-A Kane County, just 40 miles west of Chicago. recently named him the No. 100 prospect in baseball. FanGraphs listed him as the organization's sixth-best prospect, ahead of right-hander C.J. Edwards, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2013.

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Johnson was promoted from Kane County to advanced Class-A Daytona towards the end of that season, forming a dynamic 1-2 punch with Edwards at the top of a rotation that won a Florida State League championship.

The Cubs are loaded with arguably the best stable of position prospects in the game, but the farm system lacks high-end pitching, putting a lot of focus on Johnson and Edwards.

Director of player development Jaron Madison said Johnson and Edwards are projected to start this season at Double-A Tennessee, if all goes well in spring training.

"They're going to be part of a really special pitching staff (in Tennessee)," Madison said. "They get along well, they'll compete and push each other. I think having those guys together at that level with (fellow pitching prospect Corey Black is) going to be fun to watch.

"If those two guys can continue to progress and move along (the way) they have up to this point, it's going to be pretty special once they get here to Chicago."

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Johnson, the 43rd overall pick in the 2012 Draft, only has 27 professional starts under his belt and will turn 23 in May. He was a polished pitcher coming out of Missouri State University, but he fell in the draft because of concerns about a forearm injury. He went 6-1 with a 2.22 ERA and 9.2 K/9 in 10 appearances (eight starts) for Daytona.

Albert Almora was taken sixth overall in the same draft and might have joined the Daytona team late last season if not for a couple of ill-timed injuries, including one involving Johnson.

Almora broke the hamate bone in his left hand last spring, fouling off a pitch from Johnson. But when healthy, Almora joined Johnson in Kane County and got to see first-hand how the young right-hander progressed as a starter.

"It was boring to be in center field because he's such a great pitcher," Almora said. "He gets a lot of groundballs with his movement. I had to tell him once in a while, like, 'Hey, let them hit it to me.'

"He's one of the best pitchers I've seen and gotten to face."

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Johnson said it's easy to get caught up in the moment playing alongside some of the best prospects in the game like Almora, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler. While most players claim they don't pay attention to prospect rankings, Johnson admitted he has taken note.

"That's what gives me confidence," he said. "Putting me with Albert Almora, Soler, those guys ... that's such an awesome feeling."

Johnson knows he has a long road ahead of him before getting to Wrigley Field, but he doesn’t lack confidence. For him, it's not about "if" he gets to the big leagues, but "when." It's also how he perceives the Cubs' 105-year-long championship drought.

"Maybe it's a long stretch, but maybe I could be there in a year," Johnson said, admitting he secretly hopes the Cubs don't win a World Series until he makes it to Chicago. "I'm doing whatever it takes to get there, and I want to be there when it happens."

Johnson was among the group of prospects that attended a Blackhawks game before the Cubs Convention and experienced what a Chicago crowd feels like. He said chills washed over him during Jim Cornelison's national anthem at another sellout inside the United Center.

"The way those fans got into the game, I can just imagine what it'd be like at Wrigley," Johnson said. "Especially in October in a Game 5 or 6. That would be the coolest thing ever."