11/16/2012 6:04 AM
By BOB WIRZ
Independent Baseball Insider
Kris Johnson was playing video games in the basement of his home outside Kansas City when he picked up the phone to hear a voice say he would like to talk to him about his latest news as well as his days pitching in an Independent league little more than one year ago.
While he might have preferred sticking with the video activity a while longer, the tone of voice said it all when the caller congratulated the left-hander, who only recently turned 28, on being invited to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring training camp three months from now.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” echoed Tim Doherty, who managed Johnson at nearby Kansas City in the American Association the second half of 2011 after a five and a half-year run in the Boston farm system had ended at the Triple-A level (Pawtucket, RI). That was the only organization Johnson had known since he left Wichita State as a decorated, first-round sandwich draft choice. He had been the 40th selection in the entire country in the 2006 draft.
Johnson has every right to be happy. He is one of probably less than half a dozen out of more than 80 players who have toiled in the Independent leagues and reached the top level of a minor league farm system recently who knows for certain he will be in a Major League spring training camp.
We can point to 18 one-time Indy players who are on Major League rosters, but know of 83 others who were on Triple-A lists until the recent purge which threw nearly half of them into the unknown pool known as free agency.
That’s how fortunate Kris Johnson is because the 6-foot-4 hurler knows he will have a locker in the Pirates’ clubhouse in Bradenton, Fla. come mid-February.
You can bet the farm everyone else on a Triple-A roster as well as the dozens and dozens in lower levels of the affiliated ranks would love to being playing video games or whatever their passion is without need to wait by the telephone to hear that they will get an opportunity to further showcase their talent in major league training camps.
Johnson admitted he had fun pitching for the Kansas City T-Bones and that in Independent Baseball “you’re playing as a team and not trying to take someone’s job (as is the case in a Major League farm system)”, but it does not take a scholar to understand opening the season with a salary well north of $400,000 in a perfectly manicured American or National League stadium is a baseball player’s dream.
Doherty, who is in discussion with more than one Major League organization about his own future after spending last summer as the backup hitting coach to Dave Magadan as well as throwing batting practice for the Red Sox, recognizes Johnson has a natural bonus of being left-handed with “plus pitches” as he tries to earn his first regular-season Major League opportunity, but “he was trying to get his confidence back” when he reported to the T-Bones after his earned run average ballooned to 12.63 in his first eight appearances at Pawtucket in 2011.
“It was a little bit of a process to get rid of the negativity,” Doherty remembers, and Johnson was a “fantastic” student. “It wasn’t any one thing we (Doherty and pitching coach Caleb Balbuena) did. The credit goes to Kris.”
By season’s end in the American Association, Johnson had compiled a 6-3 record and a 3.23 ERA in 16 starts, and when the Pirates came calling last offseason the hurler went 3-2, 2.09 in 15 appearances for Double-A Altoona, Penn., and 5-2, 4.53 in 20 games at Indianapolis to earn the faith of Pittsburgh brass. He was used in both starting and relief roles.
Johnson has one other step before spring training as he keeps his fastball (up to 94), curve and change sharp and continues to work on developing a slider. That will be to pitch for Escogido in the Dominican Republic after Thanksgiving.