MINNEAPOLIS — Micah Johnson might be considered the White Sox second baseman of the future, but after Sunday’s latest bullpen meltdown in Cleveland, I felt compelled to ask him, “How’s your slider?”
The chaos in the White Sox relief corp might be in the present, but Johnson was in Minneapolis on Sunday representing the White Sox future in the MLB All-Star Futures Game.
He had some big shoes to fill.
In last year’s game at Citi Field in New York, his current Charlotte Knights teammate Matt Davidson hit a two-run homer and was named the game’s MVP.
“He let me know that,” Johnson said in the clubhouse before the game. “High expectations, man. He set the bar too high.”
Splitting time at second base, Johnson went 0-for-2 with two groundouts, though it looked like he beat out the first one.
“I plead the fifth,” Johnson said with a smile afterwards. “I told them I was going to throw the (challenge) flag.”
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The odds might have been stacked against Johnson anyway since the left-handed hitter had to bat against two flame-throwing southpaws in the big showcase game. There was Rays minor leaguer Enny Romero and Dodgers prospect Julio Urias, who at 17-years-old became the youngest player to compete in the Futures Game. He pitched a perfect fifth inning.
“What are the odds I would face two lefties throwing 95? I knew that was going to happen too,” Johnson said. “The kid, he's like 13 years old throwing 97. Then the other guy came in throwing 97. I’m thinking, 'I need a righty or something.'”
Last season, Johnson looked like the second-coming of Rickey Henderson. He stole a staggering 84 bases in 131 games as he moved his way up the minor league ladder playing for Class-A Kannapolis, Class-A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham. This year at Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte, he’s managed only 16 stolen bases in 75 games.
“This year is a whole different level game,” Johnson explained. “I’m not in Low-A. I’m not stealing every second I get on base. I’m not getting on base as much. I’m trying to understand what I have to do each day to help my team be successful. That’s bringing energy. Sometimes in Triple-A the energy level is not there. Guys don’t want to be there because they’ve been in the big leagues for so long. I’m trying to bring energy everyday and play hard. It’s a little different.”
In May, when I asked White Sox vice-president of player development Buddy Bell if he could see Johnson getting called up to the majors this season he said, “I think that’s realistic.”
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Does Johnson feel like he’s close?
“Yeah, I feel like my game is where I want it to be. I know what kind of player I want to be when I get there. I’m not going to try to steal every time. I’m going to steal when the moment is right, play solid defense and make the plays I need to make, and then make the outstanding plays when they’re available.”
Bell spoke to Johnson in Charlotte a few weeks ago and just told him to stay focused, work hard and play his game. Lately, he has. He arrived at the Futures Game on a nine-game hitting streak, batting .384 with a double, triple and five runs scored.
On this night, Johnson didn't have the game he wanted. But playing with and against some of the brightest future stars in the game, he feels like he belongs. Later this week, every one of them will head back to the minors. Their stay there — they hope — will be temporary.
“Hopefully, I can see all those guys sometime again."
Under the big lights, for sure.