Over the past few weeks fans and media alike have queried whether the Indians might be able to sign right fielder Yasiel Puig to a contract extension this offseason. Puig is no doubt an exciting player. He’s been a sparkplug for this team since he was traded to the Indians as part of the Trevor Bauer deal at the end of July. Puig is a presence that cannot be ignored in the Indians’ lineup, and is also a force in right field, as his gunning down of baserunners with his rocket arm has shown us over the past few weeks.
Look, we’ve spent the past year analyzing, obsessing over, and complaining about the Indians’ payroll limitations. Yes, Bauer is off the books. Yes, the Indians will not likely pick up Jason Kipnis’ $16.5 million option next season. Yes, Danny Salazar’s free ride on the Indians’ IL is almost up and next year he can find someone else to pay him millions of dollars to be injured. But Francisco Lindor hits arbitration next year, and that’s going to cost the team – and no doubt he will be worth every last penny. Nevertheless it will be costly, and other players’ salaries will also go up, including Corey Kluber‘s $17.5 million option.
All of this is to say that as great of a match that Puig is for this team right now, the Indians are not likely to re-sign him for 2020. And that is okay. Because the Tribe’s right fielder of the future is right under are noses, manning right field in Huntington Park for the Columbus Clippers as we speak. His name is Daniel Johnson. You may have heard of him. He came over from the Washington Nationals in the Yan Gomes trade last offseason. And he’s just about ready for the big leagues.
As is well documented by now, the Indians traded or did not re-sign several players last off-season in an attempt to bring down payroll. One of the players traded was catcher and fan favorite Yan Gomes. Many fans were mad when this deal was done. Although Gomes had a few offensive-challenged seasons, his bat had come back to life in 2018. And more importantly, he is a stellar defensive backstop who handled the Indians’ pitching staff with precision. Overlooked at the time, either out of anger or because they were unknown minor leaguers, were the players the Indians received in return: AAA pitcher Jefry Rodriguez, and AA outfielder Daniel Johnson.
At the time of the trade, Johnson was working his way back from a hamate bone injury, and for that reason he had a down 2018 season. With Washington’s AA Harrisburg Senators, Johnson played in only 89 games, hitting .267/.321/.410 while trying to get healthy. The Indians made the trade on the heels of that season, and it may end up being the perfect example of the Tribe buying low and hitting the jackpot.
In 2017, Johnson hit a combined .298/.356/.505 for the Low-A Hagerstown Suns and the High-A Potomac Nationals. Johnson also hit 22 home runs, 29 doubles, and stole 22 bases on his way to being named the Nationals’ Minor League Player of the Year in 2017. Johnson did not just win Player of the Year in any run of the mill minor league system. The Nationals’ system, especially in 2017, was loaded with prospects such as Juan Soto, Victor Robles, and Carter Kieboom, among others. So to win this honor was no small feat.
The Nationals drafted the left-handed Johnson in the fifth round of the 2016 amateur draft, out of New Mexico State University. One has to wonder why the team was willing to give up on Johnson for an aging catcher. Did they believe Johnson’s hamate injury was career changing? Did they not believe he was a true major league prospect? Were they that desperate for a catcher? Who knows, but one factor that likely played into the decision is the fact that the Nationals are loaded in the outfield. Both Soto and Robles are outfielders, and were more highly-touted prospects than Johnson was or is. And both are now starting for the Nationals’ big league team and finding success. So it’s possible that the Nationals found Johnson expendable and chose to deal from a position of strength to strengthen a position of weakness.
Either way, Johnson has been dynamite since coming over to the Indians. This year, he started off in AA playing for the Akron Rubberducks. After a bit of a slow start he came on strong, hitting .253/.337/.534 in 39 games for the Ducks. He added 10 home runs, 33 RBI, and six stolen bases in that span before getting promoted to the AAA Clippers.
In 75 games with the Clippers Johnson has really hit his stride. He’s hitting .307/.372/.480, with seven home runs, 38 RBI, and six stolen bases. Johnson also has 23 doubles and four triples for the Clippers. Notably, his strikeout to walk rate is respectable: 68SO/30BB. Watching Johnson in person, he is an undeniably fluid athlete with a smooth, natural swing. When you watch him at bat, it is easy to imagine that swing playing in the major leagues. His defense in right field is very good. He has a strong arm that is well-suited to the position, although he could also play center or left and play them well.
Watching Johnson up close this season, he has proven to be a true five-tool player who keeps developing and getting better before our very eyes. It will not be long before the 24-year old does not have anything left to prove in the minor leagues, and it will likely be around the time that Puig’s contract expires. I, as much as anyone, have enjoyed Puig’s eccentric personality and bulging biceps in the middle of the Indians lineup this season. And there is no denying that Puig has played lights out since joining the Tribe. Looking at Puig’s seven major league seasons, he has a respectable line of .276/.347/.478. This includes 132 HR (which averages out to 26 per 162 game season). His highest single season HR and RBI tally was in 2017 with 28 and 74, respectively. This season, Puig is hitting .260/.312/.478, with 24 HR and 72 RBI. Puig has also swiped 16 bases this season.
Puig’s numbers are good, and frankly dwarf what the Indians’ outfield was producing the first half of this season. But these younger outfielders have started to develop and produce. For what Puig will likely cost, there is reason to believe that Johnson could put up similar numbers, and his minor league performance indicate he could do it consistently in the big leagues. Puig’s personality and muscle in the middle of that lineup and in the locker room have really meshed well with the Tribe. But a look at Johnson’s Instagram account demonstrates that he’s not lacking for personality – or biceps. And the Indians will get him for a fraction of the price of Puig. And as Indians fans we have to come to terms with the fact that price matters.
Keep an eye on Johnson if the Indians decide to call him up this September when rosters expand. Due to the intense playoff race and the fact that the outfield is suddenly a position of strength, it remains to be seen if Johnson will get much playing time even if he does get the call. If and when Johnson does see the field take note. Because his performance in Akron and Columbus this season indicate that he could roam right field on East 9th and Ontario for years to come.