You don’t get any credit for finding a prospect if you don’t sign him. No one would care about Matt Moore being an 8th round find by the Rays if he went to New Mexico State for three years then got drafted again. But the Rays realized something about Pierce Johnson before everyone else, and while it will be forgotten unless they draft him again, it’s another example of how incredible the Rays scouting department is.
The Rays selected right-hander Pierce Johnson in the 15th round of the 2009 MLB Draft out of Faith Christian Academy in Arvada, Colorado. He is the only player drafted out of that high school. They saw something in Johnson, then 6’1″, 170 with a high-80′s fastball that touched 90 MPH and a sharp breaking ball he couldn’t control. But Johnson didn’t sign, instead attending Missouri State University. After growing a couple inches, adding velocity, and gaining considerable polish during his three years at Missouri State, Johnson is now expected to be selected on Day 1 of the 2012 MLB Draft.
In 2012, Johnson went just 3-6 but with a 2.55 ERA, an 11.0 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and a 0.1 HR/9 in 13 starts and 91.2 IP. Each of his seasons at Missouri State, Johnson raised his K/9 and lowered his BB/9, HR/9, and ERA. Evaluators around the country were very impressed.
Johnson, now 6’3″, 180, throws his fastball from the low-to-mid-90′s now with nice late sink. He has topped out around 97 MPH at times. He has also learned to variate the movement on his fastball by mixing in a high-80′s cutter that he uses to force weak contact. Johnson’s fastball is a very good pitch- but only second best in his arsenal. Johnson’s best pitch is a slider that looks the same as his fastball coming out of his hand and then disappears with dynamic late break. It’s a true plus pitch and can force tons of swings and misses. Johnson runs into trouble, though, when he gets too dependent on it. Johnson’s slider still has a little bit of the quality of that breaking pitch he can’t control. Johnson struggles to locate his slider effectively for strikes and it’s most effective when he mixes it in after establishing his fastball. Johnson also throws a changeup in the low-80′s with some sinking action. Johnson’s control, especially of his fastball, has improved significantly although his command remains iffy.
The big question with Johnson is not his stuff but his ability to remain healthy. Johnson has a deceptive delivery featuring a little crossfire, and that has led to some minor arm problems. He missed a couple of starts in 2012 with a forearm strain and has dealt with similar issues in the past. Johnson has faced an assortment of other minor injuries as well.
Johnson has the upside of a number two starter if he can stay healthy and improve his command. He has three good pitches included two clear plus offerings in his fastball and slider and with his changeup showing flashes at times as well. Some team will likely select him either in the late first round or early supplemental first round. That team is unlikely to be the Rays- they rarely draft college pitchers in the first few rounds of the draft*- but he has the ability to be an effective big league pitcher for some team within a few years.
We know that the Rays are perfectly willing to draft and develop pitchers who live and die on an offspeed pitch. Usually that pitch is a changeup, with James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson being prime examples of that. But the Rays saw a breaking ball with potential and took a shot on Johnson. Unfortunately, they couldn’t sign him. It will be interesting to see how much the Rays regret that.
*David Price was an exception because the Rays were picking so early and he was clearly the best talent on the board, and completely disregard the 2011 Draft as well because the Rays just had so many picks and had to draft college players if they wanted to sign everyone.