October 1, 2014
SURPRISE, Ariz. — Those 84 stolen bases in the minors last year brought Micah Johnson some notoriety and small-time fame.
Buried in a season of lousy, the White Sox seized the moment. They brought the 23-year-old second-base prospect to U.S. Cellular Field to give reporters something to write about besides doom and gloom after Johnson batted .313 with seven homers, 15 triples, 24 doubles, 58 RBI and 106 runs scored over 131 games in a swift rise from low Class A to AA. The Sox even trotted him out at SoxFest in January — an unusual move for a player who hadn’t seen one major-league pitch.
Johnson has just the right amount of controlled, professional swag to handle attention. He’s good enough to know he has a shot at a nice career, and he’s smart enough to know it can all come tumbling down in the blink of an eye. So he isn’t getting full of himself at Sox camp.
That’s not a problem, he said.
‘‘It’s easy. It’s baseball, man,’’ Johnson said Sunday. ‘‘One year you can be good, and the next year you can suck. I don’t see how people can ever be arrogant in this game.’’
Johnson knows the fashion of the day is tomorrow’s clearance-rack special.
‘‘A lot of people go down after one year,’’ he said, ‘‘so it’s not like I look at last year and say, ‘I’m good.’ Not at all. It’s easy to stay humble.’’
Sox assistant general manager Buddy Bell, a six-time All-Star player with nine years of experience as a manager, has seen all kinds of prospects come and go, but he wouldn’t bet that Johnson will be a bust.
‘‘You can look on the field and say, ‘That guy has to be a good player, just the way he moves around,’ ’’ Bell said.
There’s more to looking the part, of course, and Johnson knows it.
‘‘Baseball is a lot more than athleticism,’’ Johnson said.
He will start the season at Class AA Birmingham. With Carlos Sanchez and Marcus Semien, the Sox believe they have some depth at second base and the middle of the infield behind incumbents Alexei Ramirez and Gordon Beckham. There’s no rush to push any of them to Chicago.
‘‘More than we’ve had in the past, and it’s sort of come quick,’’ Bell said. ‘‘They’re still young. We can be cautious and careful and see if they can play other positions because Beck’s there, too. That’s the way you want your organization to be — you want some depth, and we have it now.’’
The rap on Johnson is his defense. He made 21 errors at Class A Kannapolis in 77 games last season, but Bell said his footwork and balance are improving and his range is exceptional.
‘‘He has about as much range as I’ve ever seen a kid have because of his quickness,’’ Bell said. ‘‘He’s on a par with Beck in terms of his range. He’s made great stride defensively.’’
And, oh, that speed. Like they say, you can’t coach it. But Johnson seems to know what to do with it, although he was thrown out 26 times trying to steal last year.
‘‘At the beginning of last season, I was running every time I was on base, stealing second, stealing third,’’ he said. ‘‘Later in the season, I realized, ‘I don’t have to run.’ Pitchers were starting to slide-step, leaving stuff up in the zone, and the guy behind me was getting better pitches to hit.’’
Johnson and Bell don’t doubt that if he becomes an every-day major-leaguer, he can be a 40-50-steal guy if he hits.
‘‘If you can run, you can run,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘You have to be fast to steal. You have to be smarter, you have to study and pick your times, unlike low A, where you can just go whenever and hopefully outrun the baseball. I like to study the game, so I don’t see why not.’’