#5—Pierce Johnson

NorthSiders Report continues its Top 50 Prospect Countdown with right-handed pitcher Pierce Johnson. The first arm drafted by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer when they took over the reigns, Johnson has made a steady climb up the Cubs organization. The 23-year-old spent two stints on the DL last year but still threw over 100 innings in his second full season.

Name: Pierce Johnson, P
Age: 23 (5/10/1991)
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Height: 6-foot-3
Weight: 170
How acquired—Drafted in first-round 2012, #43 overall, out of Missouri State. Scouted by Stan Zielinski.

2014 Teams
Tennessee Smokies, Southern League, AA (18 G, 5-4, 2.55 ERA, 91.2 IP, 54 BB, 91 K, 1.24 WHIP);
Kane County Cougars, Midwest League, Low A, (2 G, 0-1, 2.45 ERA, 11 IP, 3 BB, 8 K, 0.64 WHIP).

Prior to Cubs
A three-year starting pitcher for Faith Christian Academy in Arvada, Colorado, Johnson completed only 25 innings his senior year, missing half the season with an injury. He was an all-stater the previous two years, going 10-0 as a sophomore including a no-hitter in the state championship game. He was drafted by Tampa Bay in the 15th round of the 2009 draft but decided to head to Missouri State. Johnson set the Missouri State strikeout record in 2012 fanning 119 in 99.2 innings, posting a 4-6 mark with a 2.53 ERA and .235 BAA. The junior’s best performance was a complete game shutout over Creighton as he struck out 16, earning national player of the week honors. Johnson’s career took a turn during his sophomore season as after a tough start, he bounced back with 55 strikeouts in his final 53.1 innings with a 2.36 ERA and .217 BAA. As a freshman, Johnson tossed 40.2 innings with 36 strikeouts and a 7.52 ERA. He spent two summers (2010-11) in the Cape Cod League with the Harwich Mariners. While in college, Johnson transformed from a thrower to a pitcher improving his mechanics and his ability to hit spots. He also improved his mental toughness his three years with the Bears. The righty was 11-13 overall in his 49-game career, pitching 216 innings with 227 strikeouts, fifth best in school history.

Cubs Career
After signing with Chicago on June 19, the Colorado native didn’t make his pro debut until Aug. 1 against the Indians, allowing two hits in a scoreless inning. He threw two more shutout frames in the Arizona Rookie League before being promoted to Boise. Johnson made four starts for the Hawks pitching two innings in each outing, and then took the moundfor two, three-inning starts in Boise’s two playoff series. He finished his first pro year with a 3.27 ERA in 11 innings but had a WHIP of 1.55 and a BAA of .333. Johnson took the ball on opening day for Kane County (5-5, 3.10 ERA/1.29 WHIP), one of 13 starts he made before a mid-season promotion to Daytona. He tossed 69.2 innings in the MWL with 22 walks, 74 strikeouts, and a BAA of .250. Kane County pitching coach Ron Villone said he was impressed with Johnson’s ability to absorb information and his intelligence on the mound. He arrived in Daytona in late June and allowed three earned runs in his first two starts for the D-Cubs (11.1 IP). He dominated the FSL the rest of the season, yielding six runs over his next eight games in 37.2 innings. (6-0 1.43 ERA, 41 K). The right-hander got the win in the opening game of the FSL finals, delivering five shutout innings with six strikeouts in his only post-season appearance. Johnson logged 118.1 innings in his first full pro season, making 21 starts, with two relief appearances, both in Daytona. He finished with a strikeout rate of 9.4/9 and walk a rate of 2.8. Johnson was named Cubs Pitcher of the Month for August.

2014 Season
After a hamstring injury set back his throwing schedule in spring training, Johnson made his AA debut on April 22 but took the loss against Birmingham (White Sox), allowing three runs on four hits and four walks in four innings. He walked eight in his next start and recorded his first AA win with six solid innings (5H, 2ER, 2BB 5K) at Chattanooga (Dodgers). After throwing 46 pitches in a May 19 start (four scoreless) Johnson left the game and was eventually placed on the DL with a calf strain. The injury sent him to Mesa to rehab, and then made two starts at Kane County a month later. The Cubs returned Johnson to AA to start July and he took the mound 12 times, and was impressive (4-3, 1.80 ERA, 65 IP, 42 H, 30 BB, 69 K, .187/.288/.311, .240 BAbip). The walks however, didn’t go away, about 4.5 per nine over the final month, ending the season with 5.3 BB/9. The Cubs named Johnson the Minor League Pitcher of the Month for August for the second straight year..

2015 Outlook
Johnson doesn’t have overpowering stuff so his ability to command the strike zone will go a long ways in determining his success. The Cubs have to be concerned about his walk rate last year after showing great command his entire career. Hopefully he can smooth out any mechanical issues and get past the affect the leg injuries may have caused. Johnson will either be in AA or making his AAA debut when the season starts, and his placement may be based on available innings more than anything else. Johnson’s fastball sits in the low 90s and can hit 95 but his best pitch may be his breaking ball, that he varies as a curve, a slurve or a slider. Rule 5 eligible at the end of the season, Johnson could find his way onto the Cubs 40-man roster early and make it to Wrigley Field at some point this season, but that seems like a long shot. If that doesn’t happen, expect Johnson to be placed on the 40-man before the Rule 5 draft at the Winter Meetings in December.

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