RC's top 10 first half performances: #8

The full-season minor league clubs have reached the halfway point of their respective seasons, and with that, RC has crunched the numbers and identified the top 10 performances turned in by Royals prospects thus far. This isn't a top prospect list, but rather a means to recognize the players who have put together the most impressive 2006 campaigns through the first three months of the season.

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After a slight delay, we continue our list today with the eighth-best performance, turned in by Burlington's Joshua Johnson. Johnson was drafted by the Royals in the third round of the 2004 draft with the 85th overall selection. A shortstop in high school, Johnson began his pro career in 2004 splitting time at short with Chris McConnell in the Arizona Summer League, but he made the switch to second base in 2005. A 5-11, 170 lbs. switch hitter, Johnson is a very athletic player with good pedigree – his father, Larry Doby Johnson, played parts of five seasons in the Major Leagues from 1972-1978.

Prior to this season, Johnson had not done much to distinguish himself, as he struggled to adjust to the faster professional game. In 2004, he played 53 games in the Arizona League, hitting .213/.413/.309 with five doubles, six triples, and no home runs in 190 at bats. He followed that with a 2005 campaign that saw him split time between Arizona and Idaho Falls, where he combined to hit .249/.378/.390 with 13 doubles, 6 triples, and three home runs in 241 at bats. It was a small step forward for him, as he began to drive the ball a little more while maintaining his high on-base percentage. Regardless, he entered the 2006 season as something of an afterthought on most prospect lists and depth charts, behind other middle infielders in the Royals' low minors, such as McConnell, Jeff Bianchi, and Wilver (Gary) Perez.

However, Johnson this season is beginning to draw some attention. In making the jump to full-season ball, the 20-year-old has continued to steadily improve his game. Through 57 games thus far, Johnson is hitting .262/.424/.305 with 54 walks in 187 at bats. He leads the Midwest League by wide margins in both on-base percentage and walks, and for his efforts, he was the first Burlington Bee since 2000 to be named a starter in the Midwest League All-Star Game.

While we are still concerned about his power (he has only five extra base hits thus far, and nearly as many walks as total bases), his steadily improving ability to control the strike zone against more advanced A-ball pitching leaves us very encouraged. He does most of his damage from the left side of the plate, hitting righties at a clip of .265/.418/.326, but he shows equal plate discipline vs. lefties, where he has a line of .233/.431/.233 in 48 at bats. He also has good speed, although thus far in his career he has failed to steal bases at an effective rate (he's been successful on just 44 of 71 career steal attempts, including 11 of 18 this season). His natural athleticism plays well at second base, and so far this season he's made only four errors while continuing to learn the position.

While his stats aren't going to blow anyone away, it's the continued improvement that has landed him on our list. A .424 on-base percentage in any league is impressive, but even more so from a 20-year-old in the pitching-friendly Midwest League. We expect that Johnson will gradually begin collecting more extra-base hits as the season wears on and he makes more adjustments to Midwest League pitching, and we wouldn't be surprised if the Royals actually encourage Johnson to be a little more aggressive at the plate. We saw him play earlier this week, and he's not the slap hitter one might expect – he's got good bat speed through the zone and a fluid line drive swing. It shouldn't require much adjustment before more of his line drives start finding the gaps.

RC expects Johnson will probably spend the remainder of the season with Burlington while he continues to work on mastering second base and adding a little more pop to his bat. It's still too early to tell what type of player he will eventually become, but Johnson certainly has the physical tools and knowledge of the strike zone to turn himself into an interesting prospect. If he can develop his running game while maintaining his on-base ability, Johnson could one day become a fine leadoff hitter in a Major League lineup. That's obviously the best case scenario, and he's got a long way to go, but his 2006 season thus far has put him on the radar.

Be sure to stay tuned, as we plan to continue our countdown with the seventh-best first half performance in the coming days.
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