June 1, 2012

Adam Johnson and the ghost of No. 2 picks past

Last time the Twins held the draft's No. 2 overall pick was 2000 and they took a college pitcher, right-hander Adam Johnson from Cal-State Fullerton, who led Division I in strikeouts and won Big West Conference pitcher of the year honors. It was actually the second time the Twins had drafted Johnson, as they originally picked him in the 25th round out of high school in 1997 and he opted for school rather than signing.

At the time Johnson was highly touted within a draft class that, much like this year's version, was considered relatively lacking in elite-level prospects, but he was not viewed as a top-five talent and the Twins selecting him No. 2 overall was largely seen as a "signability pick" for a franchise with a reputation for pinching pennies. In fact, Baseball America's pre-draft scouting report on Johnson projected him to go in the middle of the first round:

He has command of three solid pitches, including a dynamite 85-86 mph slider that has a late, hard break. Scouts aren't sold on his 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame or his maximum-effort delivery, but he has won them over with his pitching savvy, bulldog approach, and ability to hold his velocity deep into games. He projects to the middle of the first round, though a team near the top of the draft may take him earlier and try to cut a deal.

And that's more or less exactly what happened, as the Twins bypassed various higher-upside prospects to pick Johnson and then signed him for a $2.5 million bonus that was lower than five players selected after him. Mike Radcliff, who was then the Twins' scouting director and is now the Twins' vice president of player personnel, offered this scouting report on Johnson immediately after the draft:

He had an outstanding year and he owns a solid arsenal of pitches. He has strikeout ability and shows the durability to be a starter. He is emotional and aggressive and has the potential to progress more quickly than most of this year's crop of pitchers.

Big, hard-throwing college starter with great numbers and the ability to move through the minors quickly, which could also be said about three of the five players likely being targeted by the Twins this year. As for 2000, top pickĀ Adrian Gonzalez has gone on to have a great career, but it turns out that the Twins were probably doomed no matter who they snagged in the No. 2 spot because nearly every other top-ranked prospect in the draft class went bust.

That year five of the top 10 picks and 14 of the top 30 picks failed to even reach the majors, including No. 4 pick Mike Stodolka and No. 7 pick Matt Harrington. And most of the first-round picks who did make it to the majors failed to have an impact. No. 3 pick Luis Montanez hit .223 in 135 games. No. 5 pick Justin Wayne threw 62 innings with a 6.13 ERA. And even No. 6 pick Rocco Baldelli was derailed by health problems after initially looking like a potential star.

Along with Gonzalez the only other 2000 first-rounders to have a significant impact are No. 15 pick Chase Utley and No. 29 pick Adam Wainwright, although stars like Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Brandon Webb, and Ian Kinsler were selected in later rounds. Obviously the Twins would have been better off selecting any of those players instead of Johnson, but none were projected as top-10 picks and everyone who was projected as a top-10 pick flopped.

And for a brief time Johnson actually looked very promising. As a big, hard-throwing pitcher with a great track record versus quality college competition he skipped rookie-ball and low Single-A after signing, jumping directly to high Single-A and thriving. He debuted with 12 starts for Fort Myers, throwing 69 innings with a 2.47 ERA and 92-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing just 45 hits, and that winter Baseball America rated him as their 41st-best prospect.

One spot ahead of Johnson on that same list? Jake Peavy. And one spot below Johnson on that same list? Albert Pujols. He moved up to Double-A in 2001 and continued to pitch well with a 3.82 ERA and 110-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 113 innings, at which point the Twins called him up a month shy of his 22nd birthday. Johnson tossed a Quality Start in his debut, but allowed 14 runs in 15 innings over his next three starts and was demoted to Triple-A.

He kept scuffling there and then got knocked around with the Twins again working out of the bullpen as a September call-up, dropping to No. 85 on Baseball America's list that winter. And then it all fell apart. Johnson failed to make the team out of spring training in 2002, famously ripping up his assignment paperwork and storming out of first-year manager Ron Gardenhire's office. Talk of Johnson being "emotional and aggressive" suddenly wasn't such a good thing.

Johnson began 2002 back at Triple-A again and posted a 5.47 ERA in 27 starts, with a 112-to-55 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 151 innings and 25 homers among 181 total hits allowed. He didn't pitch in the majors that year and didn't appear on any prospect lists that winter. Johnson underwent hernia surgery prior to spring training in 2003 and once healthy coughed up 13 runs in six innings to ensure that he didn't make the team.

He was optioned to Triple-A again, missed time with a shoulder injury, and was eventually yanked from Rochester's rotation after going 3-11 with a 6.75 ERA. Johnson found success in the Triple-A bullpen, posting a sub-2.00 ERA for six weeks, but struggled when reinserted into the rotation. He finished the 2003 season with a 5.35 ERA and terrible 78-to-48 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 114 innings at Triple-A, but the Twins called him up in September anyway.

Johnson made just two relief appearances. He allowed two runs in the first outing and then faced the Tigers in the final game of the season, coming into a 2-2 game and giving up six runs while recording one out. And that was the last time Johnson pitched in the majors. He was dropped from the 40-man roster after clearing waivers in early 2004 and spent that season posting a 6.07 ERA in Rochester's bullpen before the Twins released him at age 25.

After a brief stint for an independent league team back home in California he signed a minor-league deal with the A's and spent two seasons getting clobbered in their farm system. In all Johnson finished his pro career with a 6.08 ERA in 434 innings at Triple-A and a 10.25 ERA in 26 innings in the majors, ranking as one of the worst No. 2 picks in the 47-year history of the draft and showing why dominant college pitchers aren't always the safest way to avoid a bust.

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19 Comments »

  1. Sounds like that 2 makeup rating killed him, and the demotion penalties certainly didn’t help. ;)

    Comment by Baugy — May 31, 2012 @ 11:38 pm

  2. Ohhhh so Adam Johnson is to blame for our delusional front office!? Take the man #2 overall, led Division 1 in K’s , power arm…. went bust and now we haven’t touched a power arm in more then a decade!

    Comment by Kurt E. — June 1, 2012 @ 9:08 am

  3. You know, the spotlight really does burn pretty brightly on those top picks. It seems a bit hokey, but demeanor and maturity are important factors – all the moreso for those top players of whom much is expected. (See Beane, Billy.) It’s just not easy to measure a person’s ability to handle all of the pressures that being a high pick will bring, particularly when that person is 18-21 years old.

    Comment by BR — June 1, 2012 @ 9:36 am

  4. Having just read the SI article about Dan Naulty and other Twins propects and their steroid use, I have to wonder if the failure of Johnson or any player from this era was due to the decision not to cheat.

    Comment by Pedro Munoz — June 1, 2012 @ 9:49 am

  5. A lot of doom and gloom lately, Aaron. Although, who can blame you? What would you do with the #2 pick?

    Comment by haplito — June 1, 2012 @ 10:17 am

  6. “You know, the spotlight really does burn pretty brightly on those top picks.”

    Yes and no. High school players drafted in the first couple of rounds may generate some media attention in rookie ball, and have a bigger lifestyle adjustment to make than most athletes who play in college before going pro.

    But college ballplayers usually come from big schools where they played in front of decent-sized crowds and were already under a bit of a microscope. Low A doesn’t seem like a big step up in that regard.

    And no baseball prospect debuts under the scrutiny and pressure that top NFL and NBA picks do, simply because of the small crowds and relative obscurity of rookie and most A-level minor league baseball.

    Comment by LaBombo — June 1, 2012 @ 11:03 am

  7. How am I supposed to get through Friday at work without Link-O-Rama?!

    Comment by Andy — June 1, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

  8. The funny thing about the casual fan statement that you can’t value or project a prospect is that it often derives from being a fan of a team that hypes prospects that never really had a chance.

    Adam Johnson never should have been a #2 overall pick, the Twins were just cheap. I would hope they’ve learned their lesson, but progress occurs at a glacial pace in Minnesota.

    Comment by Brian — June 1, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

  9. Where the hell is Link-O-Rama? It’s the onlything that makes work bearble on friday’s.

    Comment by Mike — June 1, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

  10. Brian, your comment rings hollow. As Aaron pointed out, the only prospects from that draft that panned out were, with the exception of Gonzalez, drafted later in the 1st round or in subsequent rounds. Yes, the Twins were cheap here (though there have been more recent examples in the past few years where they haven’t been). Ultimately, they were smart to do so. The supposed best player in that draft was Harrington, who fell to #7 due to signability issues (he was rated higher than Gonzalez by most). Had the Twins ponied up and drafted Harrington, they would have gotten equal (or less) production and paid more.

    Most of the evidence out there, including the stuff Gleeman has supplied in his past few posts, supports the statement that projecting baseball prospects is a very difficult thing.

    Comment by tborg — June 1, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

  11. LaBombo: I should have been more clear, but the “spolight” isn’t just media attention or big crowds. It’s the expecations of the organization that surround the player constantly. Plus the expectations of the player’s family and friends. Plus the player’s own expectations (“I was the #2 guy taken in the whole draft, I should be killing these pitchers and in the majors by now!”)…

    And that’s not even getting into the money issue: top pick = big $, and a whole new list of “friends,” relatives and “advisors.” Frankly, that problem is exacerbated by the fact that most of the other players around you in the low minors are NOT big bonus guys and can’t relate to the social issues you’re facing.

    Anyway, that’s where the guy’s maturity really gets tested. It’s as much off the field as on, perhaps more.

    Comment by BR — June 1, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

  12. Another excellent bit of writing, Aaron. Thank you.

    Comment by birdwatcher — June 1, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

  13. Pedro Munoz, I had the same thought, but in the opposite direction. What if his struggles started when the testing started? Although, as a guy with a lot of success in college, it’s possible he never felt the pressure to use PEDs that Naulty did when he made it to the pros. And maybe a lot of guys with that type of earlier performance record fall off at AAA all of a sudden; we think of players peaking around age 25-27, but Johnson seems like he peaked at 22-23. Who knows?

    Comment by JHench — June 1, 2012 @ 7:31 pm

  14. Tborg,

    Can’t view the draft in hindsight. Johnson was a bad pick and his failure was an entirely foreseeable result of a bad approach.

    Obviously the Twins don’t have the same approach to the draft anymore. My closing comment was more directed at their failure to embrace advanced statistical analysis or really any alternative viewpoint as evidenced by going back to Terry Ryan after the Bill Smith debacle.

    Also, my comments about valuing prospects were only tangentially related to Adam Johnson. I just often see marginal or decent prospects such as Chris Parmelee being pumped up in the mainstream media only to inevitably disappoint. And I think this results in many fans undervaluing the true top prospects or believing they fail much more than they actually do.

    Comment by Brian — June 2, 2012 @ 6:44 pm

  15. JHench,

    I agree, PED use was endemic in college and even competitive high school ball in the 90s (it may well still be, I don’t know.)

    But at the same time, baseball careers naturally soar and plunge on unanticipated arcs. In that era, people always want to attribute a large success or failure to PEDs, but its not necessarily the case.

    Comment by Brian — June 2, 2012 @ 6:46 pm

  16. JHench, I agree completely. There are a lot of different scenarios where PEDs and testing for PEDs affected the scouting of players.

    Brian, while I agree that careers will naturally soar and plunge on unanticipated arcs – even the best scouts are going to miss sometimes due to some randomness – what PEDs did was destroy that natural process. Whether or not you cheated and got away with it was far more important than raw talent or hard work. Major league baseball was basically a drug infested joke for much of the 90s and until testing got serious. I don’t know how anyone can go back and look at the Sosa/McGwire home run battle and not just be completely embarrassed.

    Comment by Pedro Munoz — June 2, 2012 @ 9:24 pm

  17. Went to see the Rockcats yesterday and was extremely disappointed with what I saw in Hicks. He absolutely loafed on two plays in the field. A first inning sacrifice fly to medium deep center that he made no effort on the throw (he probably had no chance on the runner but he didn’t even try to use that supposedly big arm). Later he almost misplayed a single and made another throw that was off-balance and way too casual. His demeanor on the field was disinterested and almost withdrawn. Head down, no effort to backup plays, got picked off first after his only hit. His swing looked long and off-balance, he appeared to be bailing out on even his practice swings Maybe it was just a bad day but he showed no leadership on the field and was not someone who was trying to make a difference. Very disappointing. We won’t be seeing him anytime soon.

    Comment by Rhal — June 3, 2012 @ 8:04 am

  18. I’m sorry, but I get really annoyed when people point to other players drafted after Johnson (just for example) who flopped and then use that evidence as reason why the Johnson pick was a good one. It isn’t necessarily set in stone that a player is going to flop (or dominate) context-independent. Who knows what might have happened with some of those other players if the Twins drafted them? Maybe they wouldn’t have gotten injured or maybe they wouldn’t have been rushed/held back through the system? The context is different. I am not saying that it would be a sure thing that one of the other players would have been a star for the Twins, but it is equally not a sure thing that those other players all would have flopped if taken into the Twins system.

    Comment by Shane — June 3, 2012 @ 8:57 am

  19. Hernia…coughed…I see what you did there.

    Comment by Joe — June 4, 2012 @ 8:31 am

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