Live From the AFL: Michael Johnson

There are certain questions that are standard to any player in the Arizona Fall League. One of them, maybe the most obvious, is 'What are you working on down here specifically?' And when you ask Padres first base prospect Michael Johnson, the answer is one of the most common also. 'Plate discipline.' Sure, it makes sense, choosing the right pitch to hit goes a long way to actually being able to hit it, but how do you do that?

How do you suddenly teach yourself to lay off the same pitch you've spent years swinging at?

"What I'm trying to do is zone in on a pitch, and a location for that pitch, and keep that some as small as I can," Michael Johnson explained before Friday's AFL game in Peoria. "If you go up there with this big area that you're looking for pitches in, it makes it harder to lay off one that isn't that good. The smaller the area you're watching, the easier it is for you to eliminate pitches that aren't in that area."

For Johnson the AFL continues a stellar season that started at Hi-A Lake Elsinore of the California League. There Johnson hit .295 with 21 home runs in just 288 at bats. The knock, as it is with many power hitters, was strikeouts, as he K'd 89 times. That's the focus of his time in the AFL, he's got a plan, now it's about execution. In the AFL so far he's hitting .277 with one homer and seven RBI, and while his strikeouts are still up (10 in 47 AFL at bats) he feels that he's making improvement.

"It's not easy, if it were I'd have done it already," Johnson says of his change in approach, "but I'm learning, I'm getting a lot of help, a lot of input from the coaches down here, and I'm making progress."

While Johnson continues to focus on the task at hand, we asked him to look ahead a bit, first to this offseason.

"I'll head back to South Carolina and jump right into the weight training and strength and conditioning programs they have set up for me," and while Johnson knows that every offseason is important, he feels that this one holds big things in store, "This is a big offseason for me, I mean, every offseason is big, but I just kind of feel like this is the year where I really need to step up and start playing to my potential. I think the '06 season is my time."

That could become problematic. Both Johnson and Fernando Valenzuela Jr. had solid seasons at Lake Elsinore, and their numbers seem to justify that both be promoted. The thing is, both man the same spot, first base. It wasn't a problem in the DH friendly California League, but if they do both earn the promotion to Double-A Mobile, in the Southern League there won't be a DH, meaning the two would end up, at best, splitting time.

"For me the key in that situation would be that you prepare everyday like you're playing everyday. If you come in and work and prep the way you do for a game, take BP seriously, take infield seriously, then you'll be ready when your opportunity does come. It doesn't feel like you've had a day off, it feels like you're playing all the time."

But wouldn't it be frustrating to be in a position where the at bats were split?

"That's not my decision, it's not under my control."

Of course, there is an alternative. There have been some in the organization who have hinted that Johnson might skip Mobile altogether, and move right to Triple-A Portland.

"That's a huge jump, I'm not going to act like it wouldn't be, but I'm up for a challenge, I'm ready for it. That would be a huge step, but if that's what the organization decides to do I'll be ready for it, and prepare the same way I always have."


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