In his job as Vanderbilt’s pitching coach, Derek Johnson was used to shepherding 15 or so pitchers. He’d help recruit them in the summers and fall, he’d coach them in practice and in games, he’d celebrate when they were drafted.
He helped the Commodores reach the 2011 College World Series and helped produce seven pitchers drafted in the first two rounds, most significantly David Price, Mike Minor and Sonny Gray. Johnson was often hailed by peers and pro scouts as college baseball’s best pitching coach, and he won BA’s Assistant Coach of the Year Award in 2010.
But when the Cubs called to see if he’d be interested in their position as minor league pitching coordinator, Johnson could not resist. He accepted the position in October 2012, tasked with helping turn around the franchise he’d always cheered for growing up in Normal, Ill.
So that’s how Johnson found himself in the Cubs’ spring training complex in early March, often at 5 a.m., usually the first person to arrive and often the last to leave, in his first spring camp. Instead of directing the actions and routines of 15 players, he had to do that for 100.
“There were so many things I didn’t know,” Johnson admits at the end of his first season, capped by instructional league. “What would take a guy who has done this job before an hour, it would take me three hours to do.
“We had 100 pitchers over four fields and four levels, and a lot of different opinions on what we should do with them.”
Other Cubs officials noted Johnson’s work ethic with a mix of concern and admiration.
“I think he was a little overwhelmed at first, especially early in spring training,” said assistant general manager Jason McLeod, who oversees scouting and player development for the organization. “I think now he knows more of how it runs and how to manage it better.”
Johnson may have needed time to adjust, but it’s important for the Cubs that he did, because the organization has an imbalance. It boasts three of the minors’ top pure sluggers in Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler. The Cubs also have only one homegrown pitcher, 2012 draftee Pierce Johnson, among their Top 10 Prospects.
Developing pitching is a challenge for most organizations, and the Cubs looked outside the system the last two years for help, acquiring prospects such as C.J. Edwards, Arodys Vizcaino, Corey Black and Ivan Pineyro to bolster the farm system. Johnson’s job is to help them improve and stay healthy.
He’ll be scrutinized as a college guy in pro ball, especially one who didn’t play professionally, but that’s something he’s used to from Vandy, where pitchers such as Gray and Price arrived in Nashville with great expectations.
He’ll also be scrutinized by his pitchers, who had to adjust to more drill work than they’d done in the past. Johnson demanded more energy from his pitchers as well, acknowledging expectations have to be different over a 140-game season versus the shorter college schedule. He also had to adjust his own schedule.
“I love some parts of my job, but it’s like any other thing,” he said. “I know I was on the phone a lot more than I used to be, shuffling pitchers around fields at spring training or between minor league rosters. I actually coach a little less, and I love coaching.
“So I have learned to relish the coaching that I get to do. I like the program we’ve got going in the organization, and I love who I work with. They came with a vision and a plan, and we trust that it will work with hard work. We have unbelievably intelligent people here, and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of.”
All in all, it reminds Johnson of his early days at Vanderbilt, when head coach Tim Corbin took over a program that was regularly at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference. Corbin, along with Johnson and recruiting coordinators such as Erik Bakich (now head coach at Michigan) and Josh Holliday (now at Oklahoma State), turned the Commodores into a consistent winner. Johnson sees the Cubs on the same path.
“You can see the layers being built,” he said. “I can see how we’re doing it. It’s going to take time. But I like what I’m doing and what we’re doing.”