Can Daniel Johnson Do Enough to Crack the Indians' Opening Day Roster?
We’re a little over a month away from the Cleveland Indians’ first game of spring training, and their outfield still looks pretty dire. There are multiple options to work with, sure, but few inspire confidence.
Some have been unable to consistently prove themselves in the big leagues (Greg Allen, Bradley Zimmer).
Some impress at the plate but not so much at fielding (Franmil Reyes).
Some received ample opportunity last year despite doing everything in their power to prove it wasn’t deserved (Jake Bauers).
And then there’s Daniel Johnson.
The main return in last winter’s trade of catcher Yan Gomes, Johnson has been quickly rising through the ranks in the minors. His goal this spring is to continue the momentum, leap-frogging the competition and cracking Cleveland’s Opening Day roster.
Is this goal achievable? Can Johnson come out on top in a field where he’s the only member without any big-league experience?
It’s not impossible. That said, it won’t be easy.
Johnson is viewed by MLB Pipeline as Cleveland’s No. 16 prospect, and it didn’t take him very long start catching attention with his new team last spring.
His upward trend continued throughout the year, as it took him just 39 games to be promoted from Double-A Akron to Triple-A Columbus. There, he finished the season with an impressive slash line (.306/.371/.496), a wRAA of 10.1 and a wRC+ of 120.
It’s the kind of performance which makes Johnson someone to keep an eye on this spring, especially considering how underwhelming the current outfield situation looks for the Indians. As mentioned, though, Johnson is the only one of the group who hasn’t stepped foot on a major league diamond.
Looking at the situation, Johnson essentially has to outshine six other outfielders, and do so convincingly enough that the Indians can't play the "stick with trusted vets" card. This is also under the assumption Cleveland keeps its current options and doesn't make a free agency pickup.
It’s no easy feat. That said, what Johnson has going for him is the fact he’s not exactly competing with potential All-Stars.
Of the main outfielders heading to spring training, only Jordan Luplow and Oscar Mercado feel like sure things to make the final roster. The former finished with the highest WAR of any Cleveland outfielder last year (2.2), while the latter was right behind him (1.7).
From there, we can scratch out Tyler Naquin, who’s still recovering from ACL surgery. Likewise, while Reyes wants to log some outfield innings in 2020, he’ll likely open the year as Cleveland’s DH.
This leaves three roster spots, for which Johnson would be competing against four other players – Bauers, Zimmer, Allen and Delino DeShields Jr.
It’s not exactly Murderers' Row. These four combined for a WAR of 0.2 in 2019. When looking at the wRAA and wRC+ of each player last season (2018 for Zimmer, the last time he logged at least 100 plate appearances), Johnson surpasses everyone by a mile. Heck, he was the only one of the group who even finished with a positive wRAA last year.
Of course, there’s obviously a big difference between minor league and MLB pitching. Johnson being the only one of the group who hasn't experienced that yet is a significant hindrance which can't be overstated.
It's this lack of time in the pros which has me believing that, barring a stunningly good spring, Johnson will kick 2020 off in Columbus. One thing we know about manager Terry Francona is, in these situations, he often favors veteran players.
After all, Mercado also turned heads last spring, but opened the year in the minors due to Francona not wanting one of Cleveland’s better prospects battling through the frigid early weeks of the season. Johnson getting similar treatment this year doesn’t feel like a stretch.
With that, I’m predicting the Opening Day outfield spots go to Bauers, DeShields, Mercado, Luplow, and Allen. Zimmer has spent so much time on the shelf and will likely need a minor league tune-up before Cleveland considers calling him up.
Johnson not yet having MLB exposure likely puts him on the outside looking in, with the Indians aiming to get him everyday at-bats in Columbus until the time comes to promote him.
I will say this – said time is surely coming in 2020. That much feels like a safe bet. Just like Mercado before him, a lack of compelling big-league options should eventually force the Indians to call Johnson up to Cleveland.
It’s just a matter of when.