Mixed Results Cloud Johnson’s Draft Stock

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For seniors hopeful of being drafted in June, the months leading up to their final high school season can crawl by agonizingly slow. But few in this year’s class have awaited Opening Day as eagerly as Cody Johnson.

Though Johnson, a laid-back, unassuming 6-foot-5 slugger from the Florida panhandle, rarely feels restless, the start of his senior season represents a fresh start and it couldn’t come a moment too soon.

Johnson’s stock soared last summer with each pitch he pounded over the fence during a power binge on the national showcase and tournament tour. Beginning in June when he attended Perfect Game’s National Showcase in Atlanta, then on to World Wood Bat events in July, when he collected MVP honors in back-to-back weeks, Johnson used his picturesque lefthanded swing to rake his way up scouts’ follow lists.

His reputation swelled. Prominent colleges were burning up his phone, and his name was suddenly being mentioned among the class’ top prospects. With each at-bat scouts in the bleachers whispered wagers, not on whether or not he’d get a hit but rather how far his next shot would travel.

The gangly kid with braces from Mosley High in Panama City now had a name. It was Cody Johnson, and everybody knew it.

He was focused and exuded confidence, carrying an aggressive approach at the plate and feasting on some of the country’s best young pitchers as if each game was little more than his own personal batting practice session.

After posting a .489 average with 10 homers using an aluminum bat as a junior, his midsummer hitting groove propelled him to .496-22-115 with 24 doubles, six triples and 40 walks in 234 at-bats–using wood–with the East Cobb (Ga.) Astros. It was a performance reminiscent of Ted Williams, his baseball hero.

“During July, I just had that feeling that, ‘I don’t care what you throw up there and who’™s throwing, I am going to hit whatever you throw up there,’ ” he says. “At Aflac, I don’t know what happened.”

It was in August, when Johnson played in the Aflac All-American Classic in Baltimore that his groove came to an abrupt end. His job now is to get it back before the draft.

Late Summer Slump

The nation’s top 38 rising seniors gathered at Towson University for the event’s first practice. The West team took BP first, then the East. That day there were plenty of fireworks. Scouts in attendance watched intently as each player took their cuts, but when Johnson climbed into the cage, the notepads and pens took a rest, as evaluation turned to admiration. Johnson effortlessly sent towering shots over the right-field fence, one after another. A handful traveled onto an adjacent street. Another couple skimmed the top of a telephone pole. It was an exhibition of raw power rarely seen from a high school hitter.

The display was as awe-inspiring as it was timely. That night Johnson received Aflac’s Jackie Robinson award as the top rising high school senior in the country. The inaugural winner in 2004, Justin Upton, had been drafted No. 1 overall two months earlier, and Johnson had the look of the next indisputable top prep prospect.

But as the nationally televised game drew closer that week, Johnson started to struggle. He wasn’t as sharp during practices and then looked overmatched in the game, striking out four times and reaching base on a walk.

“It’s a sad day when I pitch better than I hit,” quipped Johnson, who tossed a scoreless eighth inning, pressed into emergency bullpen duty when the East ran out of arms.

Johnson’s poor showing in Baltimore carried over into the fall, and he never rediscovered his stroke at the plate. “I honestly don’t know what it was,” he says. “I don’t know if I was tired or what, but I just wasn’t comfortable.”

Johnson isn’t the only one who noticed.

“As soon as they gave Cody that summer player of the year award he has stunk it up,” says a scouting director with a National League organization. “But I think he’s going to be OK.”

So does Cody.

Covering His Bases

Good makeup, combined with an excellent work ethic, provides Johnson with the intangible tools to rely on when the physical ones let him down. He handled his frustrating slump the only way he knows how.

“If there’s one little thing that’s wrong with my swing, I’ll come home and turn the lights on in the backyard and work on it for two hours if I have to,” he says.

Johnson’s father John, a Louisiana native who played baseball briefly at Mississippi State, has spent plenty of nights working with Cody in their backyard batting cage, and as the spring approached, Cody’s fine-tuning was paying off. He doesn’t have a private hitting instructor, but instead prefers to experiment with his hitting mechanics with his father, who has also honed Cody’s mindset.

At 17, he’s already experienced the ebb and flow of a long summer under the attentive eyes of college coaches and professional scouts, and with a partial scholarship from Florida State sewn up, he’s poised to cap his high school career with a strong finish, and perhaps even a run deep into the Florida Class 5-A playoffs. Last season, he went 5-for-5 with two homers in the district championship game, so it is not as if he has never performed in a big spot before.

“I know there is pressure on me to do great things this year, but the only pressure I feel is to try and bring a ring home,” he says. “College is taken care of. I have a real good second option if the draft doesn’t work out . . . and for the first time since July, (recently) I felt like I had my same swing, I felt real comfortable in the box.”

If Johnson rediscovers his midsummer form, the draft should work out just fine.

“He’s got some questions to answer,” says a scouting director with an American League club. “Physically, he brings everything tools-wise to the table you could ever ask for. But his performance was very, very mixed. There hasn’t been a lot on the middle. He’s been either really good or really bad. I would think that if he gets his swing worked out, we’ll see him go off the board pretty early.

“If you’ve seen it, you know it’s in there.”