Eric Albrecht/Columbus Dispatch

2017 IBI Top 75 Prospects: #49 Jeff Johnson

The 2017 countdown continues with a strong performing bullpen arm who has been a bit overlooked over the last year, but has a splitter which could be devastating at the major league level...

49. Jeff Johnson – Right-handed Pitcher

Born: 02/09/1990 - Height: 6’0” - Weight: 185 - Bats: Right - Throws: Right

Facts & Info: Johnson was selected by the Indians in the 10th round of the 2011 Draft out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.  He had a big 2015 season at Double-A Akron where he dominated the Eastern League leaderboard in several relief categories, and though he did not rank on any International League leaderboards last season he was a force in the middle innings of games holding hitters to a .224 batting average and got a lot of groundballs (1.63 GO/AO). Perhaps most interesting was his dominance against right-handed hitters (.170 average).

Stuff: Johnson has been one of the Indians better performers in the minor leagues the last few seasons and uses an aggressive approach on the mound where he really pounds the zone and works to establish his sinker in on the hands of hitters to set up a groundball. He uses two different fastballs that have above average velocities with a four-seam fastball that sits 91-94 MPH and will touch 95-96 MPH on occasion and also a two-seam fastball that sits 90-93 MPH that touches 94 MPH. The two fastballs offer some variety to attack right-handers and left-handers and have some good, late life through the zone. His two-seamer shows some good movement with some arm side run and good downhill sink to the bottom of the zone. The best pitch in his arsenal is a plus-plus splitter which is a legitimate Major League offering and a put away pitch at that level. It is a devastating pitch that he is able to put a lot of hitters away with when he gets to two strikes via a strikeout or weak groundball because of the very good tumbling action it has and how hitters just don’t see it or react to it well even when they know it is coming. He creates some good deception with it out of his hand it has such good, late depth that it results in a lot of chase. His third offering is a power slider which is coming along and has a chance to be an average offering for him that gives hitters a different look from all the downward action of his two-seamer and splitter.

Delivery & Intangibles: Johnson has an average sized compact build with some strength to it. He throws from a three-quarter arm slot with a quick, loose arm, and though he does a solid job of repeating his mechanics he has some violence to his delivery which can impact the command of his pitches. One of his best attributes is his innate ability to limit damage holding hitters to a career .204 batting average and just seven home runs allowed in 190 career appearances covering 211.1 innings. A lot of that comes from his other great trait which is a great heartbeat to handle high pressure situations and remain calm and collected even when faced with extreme adversity. He is just not afraid to challenge and go after hitters in any situation or count and does not let the game speed up on him. He is a bulldog who is a fierce, fearless competitor and whose intensity level goes up a lot when the game is on the line. He is a tireless worker and gives everything he has in his outings.

Focus: The two main areas of focus for Johnson are with his durability and command. He’s been healthy the last two seasons, but he has had a long track record of arm issues which raises some questions about his durability over the long haul. When he was drafted he had a sore arm that the Indians knew about which kept him from making his pro debut in his draft year, and he continued to struggle with the lingering arm issue for his first two pro seasons in 2012 and 2013 before succumbing to Tommy John surgery in November 2013. Perhaps all of the arm issues in the past tie into that one injury and subsequent surgery which has corrected the issue, but he still needs to prove durability moving forward. His command is probably the biggest obstacle at the moment as he needs to be more consistent with the location of his two-seamer to the bottom of the zone and particularly to his glove side, and he needs to be more consistent with the command and shape of his slider. The Indians would also like to see more first pitch strikes so he can avoid a lot of 1-0 and 2-0 counts so that he can get to his splitter more often. His inconsistency with his fastball command has been a big reason he has yet to get a Major League push.

Future: Johnson put forth yet another very good season in the Indians system last year in his second full season back from Tommy John surgery, this time with a full season at the highest level at Triple-A Columbus. If the command comes along, there is the potential for a good middle to backend big league bullpen arm – especially if he can consistently get to his outstanding splitter. He is someone who has looked primed for a Major League opportunity for the past year or even just added to the 40-man roster as a Rule 5 protect, but neither have happened – which goes to show that outside of the top pen prospects you just never know when it comes to relievers where they really fall in the eyes of teams. His numbers were strong last season and he showed durability which was a big roadblock for him to overcome, which was nice to see, so now it is all about fine tuning his command and getting that slider a little better. While there are some things he still has to work on, he’s about as big league ready as a pitcher can get and may just need an opportunity at the Major League level to finish off his development. But the question remains as to whether he will get that opportunity after the likes of Joseph Colon and Perci Garner passed him over last season and were rostered and others like Josh Martin and Cameron Hill on the come who will challenge him for a roster spot. It’s a good problem to have for the organization, but not for a player like Johnson who is just waiting for a chance to prove himself at the Major League level. He should open the season in the bullpen with a return to Columbus and then await a chance to come up to Cleveland later in the year.

Ranking History: #39 (2016), #60 (2015), #47 (2014), #73 (2013), #79 (2012)

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