Chicago Prospect Micah Johnson's Plan: White Sox First, Then GM Post



 

By Pete Cava
PBR Indiana Correspondent

The Charlotte Knights’ July 21-24 series with the Indianapolis Indians at Victory Field meant a homecoming for Chicago White Sox prospect Micah Johnson.
 
Johnson, a 23-year-old left-handed hitting second baseman, is an Indianapolis native who played for Park Tudor School and Indiana University before signing with the Sox in 2012.  During three seasons in pro baseball, he hasn’t been back much. “Not very often,” said Johnson.  “Not too much.”  

Micah’s parents, Harold and Tanya Johnson, live in the same Lawrence Township home where he grew up.  “Same house, as always,” said Johnson, who was looking forward to seeing family and friends during the four-game series – quite a few family and friends, in fact. 
 
“My mom sent me an email with a whole list of ticket requests,” he explained.  “A bunch of friends, and some of their friends, and stuff like that.  I hope the Indians are accommodating.”
   
Listed as 6-feet tall and 190 pounds, Micah Drew Johnson comes from an athletic family.  “Both my parents ran track in college,” he said, “and both my sisters (Hayley and Teagan) played college softball.” 
   
As a youngster, Johnson was a Chicago baseball rooter – but not the White Sox.  “I was a huge Cubs fan growing up,” he said.  “I was a big fan of Sammy Sosa.  I could emulate his hop, the way he ran out to the bases.”  

Johnson says he began playing baseball when he was about three years old.  “I started early, and I always played up, I guess.  I dibble-dabbled in soccer and football, but growing up, it was always baseball.”  

After starting high school at Lawrence North, Johnson switched to Park Tudor during his freshman year. Panthers baseball coach Courtney Whitehead spotted him during winter workouts.  Whitehead needed to plug a couple of holes to turn Park Tudor into a contending team, including one at shortstop.  “And that’s one of the tough spots to fill,” said Courtney.  “Micah looked very fluid.  His strengths were his speed, instincts, his hands.  His footwork was pretty good. Tremendous bat speed.”  

In the spring of 2006, Whitehead handed the shortstop post to Johnson. “That was truly a blessing, coming to play for Courtney Whitehead,” said Micah.  “My freshman year, I started at short and we went to (the Class 2A) semi-state.  He pushed me really hard each year.  Now, looking back, I really appreciate that.”
  
During the summer, Johnson played for the Indiana Bulls travel team.  One of his teammates, Cameron Perkins of Southport High School, is now a highly-regarded Philadelphia Phillies outfield prospect playing for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.  “Micah’s an amazing athlete, and you see it when he’s on the field,” Perkins said.  “When we played together, I didn’t like running beside him.  I’d be in a dead sprint and he would jog, and he’d still leave me in the dust.”
 
As a junior in 2008, Johnson hit .561 with 25 extra-base hits (13 doubles, four triples, eight homers) and a .963 slugging percentage.  That fall, at the start of his senior year, he injured his left shoulder in practice while diving for a ball.  “When he was hitting,” said Whitehead, “he had more pain and he figured he’d go have it checked out.”
 
The diagnosis was a torn labrum.  Johnson underwent season-ending surgery in January 2009.  “After his junior year, he was at an average of .563 for his career,” said Whitehead. “If he would have been able to compete his fourth year of high school on the field, I believe he would have been the state’s (all-time batting) leader.”   

Prior to the injury, Johnson had scholarship offers from schools like Arizona and South Alabama.  He made up his mind with help from Indiana University basketball coach Tom Crean
.   
 
Tracy Smith, IU’s baseball coach from 2006 to 2014, recalled the autumn day in 2008 when Johnson reached his decision.  “We had Micah here for Midnight Madness,” said Smith, referring to the first day of college basketball practice, a major event in Indiana.  “If you’ve ever been around Coach Crean, you know he can get pretty animated.  He got pretty fired up, got the juices flowing.” 
 
And right there in Crean’s office, Johnson agreed to come to IU.  “He made me feel like this was family,” Micah said.
 
Johnson switched to third base during his freshman year at IU in 2010.  He started every game for the Hoosiers, batting .312 with 11 homers. He shifted to second base as a sophomore and hit .335 to earn second-team All-Big Ten honors. 
 
When the college season ended, Johnson joined the Cotuit (Mass.) Kettleers of the Cape Cod League, where he began having arm trouble. “The ulnar nerve in my right arm went out of place every time I would bend my elbow,” he said. 
 
In late winter of 2012, Baseball America named Johnson to its preseason All-American third team and proclaimed him the fifth-best prospect in the Big Ten. 
 
But the nerve problems persisted.  “The constant (wear and tear) damaged it so much, I lost grip strength,” said Johnson.  “I lost feeling in my hand, and it got to the point where I couldn’t grip a bat.” 
 
Doctors told Johnson the injury was causing muscle atrophy.  Left untreated, they said he risked losing the use of his right hand. 
 
Johnson went to St. Louis for an operation on March 7, 2012.  “It was an hour-and-some surgery,” he said. “Originally, they told me six to eight months recovery time.  Then I went (for a checkup), and the doctor said ‘Six to eight weeks, you’ll be able to start swinging and throwing again."
 
After a couple of weeks with his arm in a sling, Micah began taking grounders.  “I told the doctor about that during my four-week checkup,” he said.  “He didn’t think it was very smart.  But I just couldn’t stay away that long.”
 
Johnson was sidelined for 25 of Indiana’s first 33 contests.  “I missed playing,” he said.  “I hadn’t missed a game since being there.”   Wearing a compression sleeve on the field and icing his arm away from the diamond, he began lifting weights to regain his strength. 

Johnson hadn’t made a plate appearance in 44 days when he wound up the hero of Indiana’s 8-7 win over visiting Indiana State on April 11, 2012.  With the score tied at 7-all in the bottom on the ninth, he entered the game as a pinch-runner.  He stole second, took third on an infield out, and flew home on a suicide squeeze.  “I couldn’t breathe afterwards, I was so excited,” he said.  “It was like I’d never played before.”

Limited to 24 games and a .225 average, Johnson was drafted by the White Sox in the ninth round (291stoverall) in the June 2012 draft.  He signed for a reported $127,600 and headed to Montana to play for the Great Falls Voyagers of the rookie Pioneer League, where he batted .273 with 19 stolen bases.
 
Johnson opened the 2013 campaign at Kannapolis, N.C. (low-A South Atlantic), where he hit .342 and stole 61 bases in 77 contests.  His baserunning skill decided the outcome of the Sally League All-Star game at Lakewood, N.J.  The North Division, Johnson’s team, was down 1-0 in the third when he came to bat with a runner on first.  Micah’s single allowed the runner to take third, and when Johnson broke for second, the runner stole home to tie the game.  Johnson swiped third on the next pitch and scored on a groundout.  The game was shortened to seven innings by rain, the 2-1 lead held, and Micah won most valuable player honors.

Before the season ended, Johnson jumped from Kannapolis to the Winston-Salem, N.C., Dash (high-A Carolina), and later to Birmingham, Ala., where he helped the Barons win the Double-A Southern League crown. 
 
Over ten playoff contests for Birmingham, Johnson batted .368 with seven steals.  In the fifth game of the best-of-five championship series, he went 2-for-4 in a 4-1 win over Mobile with a leadoff homer and a second-inning RBI single.  “I was just amped up to play,” said Johnson, who won playoff MVP honors.  “I was focused every single pitch, every single batter.” 
 
Johnson’s combined 84 stolen bases led all of baseball in 2013.  “That was a fun time, being able to steal and to ascend through the (White Sox) organization like that,” he said.  “It got my name out there.”
 
After the season, Johnson headed to the Arizona Fall League.  He went 8-for-25 with three stolen bases before having late-October surgery to reposition a nerve in his right elbow. The procedure was similar to the 2012 operation.  “Just nerve damage again,” he said.  “They took care of it in Chicago.  I got it fixed up properly this time.”
 
Heading into 2014, Baseball America ranked Johnson fifth among White Sox farmhands and lauded his “explosive tools,” including “top-of-the-scale speed.”  The lone criticism was “hard hands,” due to his 29 errors. 
 
In Spring Training, Johnson worked on his fielding with Sox third base coach Joe McEwing.  During the season, he continued to get extra tutelage from Ever Magallanes, Chicago’s minor league infield coordinator.  “I think it’s working out. My defense is improved.  I’ve got something like eight errors on the year, and this time a year ago, it was twenty-something.”
 
Johnson opened this season with Birmingham and was leading the Southern League with a .329 average when the White Sox promoted him to Charlotte of the Triple-A International League on May 10.  He was selected for the July 13 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game at Target Field in Minneapolis. “That was a good experience,” he said. “It was a lot of fun to meet all the former players and celebrities up there.” 
 
With his improved glovework and a .290 average through 42 games with Charlotte, Johnson looks like a sure bet to reach the Major Leagues. And yet, he’s thinking beyond his playing days. 
 
Already fluent in Spanish, Johnson wants to study Japanese in the hope that his linguistic abilities will eventually land him a job in baseball as a general manager.  “That’s my plan one day, when all this is over,” said Johnson.  “I started learning Spanish in kindergarten.  All the way up until high school, all my classes were in Spanish. I hope to add Japanese to that, and go after guys like Masahiro Tanaka (the pitcher signed out of Japan this year by the Yankees).  How can you say no to a GM who speaks Japanese?
 
Micah began studying Japanese last autumn.  “I learned a little bit while I was rehabbing in Arizona, because I was bored,” he said.  “Maybe I can get back into it in the offseason.”
 
Asked when he’ll make his Chicago debut, Johnson smiled and quipped:  “I think if I knew that, I’d be the GM now.”