Cubs Lock Up Top Pick Johnson For $1.26 Million

By John Manuel
August 16, 2004

The Cubs know Grant Johnson well. Now they’re going to get to know him even better.

Johnson, a Notre Dame righthander drafted by Chicago in the second round, signed Saturday for a $1.26 million bonus. He was the Cubs’ first choice in the draft (66th overall), as they forfeited their first-round selection as compensation for free agent LaTroy Hawkins. His bonus is $460,000 more than the next-highest second-round bonus this year, the $800,000 the Tigers gave Tampa righthander Eric Beattie as the No. 43 pick.

“He’s a young man who we scouted in high school, and he was very up front about going to college,” Cubs scouting director John Stockstill said. “We saw him in college, saw his last five outings this year, and we came away convinced that he was healthy. It’s a credit to Grant that he threw as well as he did.”

Johnson went 6-0, 1.87 this season after going 9-5, 3.46 as a freshman to lead the Fighting Irish to the 2002 College World Series. Stockstill saw Johnson’s fastball touch 95 mph this spring, and the Cubs had reports of him hitting 97 later in the season. Johnson regularly threw his fastball in the 88-93 mph range.

Johnson’s return of velocity was encouraging, as he was coming back from shoulder surgery. He pitched for Team USA in 2002, then required the surgery in December of that year. Cubs team physician Dr. Michael Shafer performed the operation, another tie between the Cubs and Johnson.

Notre Dame coach Paul Mainieri, a close friend of Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, kept Johnson on a strict pitch count this year as the righthander returned from the shoulder operation. Johnson also threw a limited amount of sliders this season, relying more on his fastball and changeup.

“One of the best development strategies is to take a breaking ball away from a young pitcher and make them throw fastball-changeup,” Stockstill said. “You have to learn to pitch with that. Grant’s is more of a slider, and he’s shown he can pitch without it, and he’s shown he’s got a feel for a breaking ball.”

Because he was a redshirt sophomore, Johnson had more negotiating leverage than most college draftees. In addition to his signing bonus, Johnson got a $40,000 scholarship to complete his marketing degree at Notre Dame. He’ll return to South Bend for the fall semester, working out on a Cubs-designed program until he reports to their Mesa, Ariz., base in January.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Johnson said of signing. “Going someplace that you are wanted is always great. It’s nice to have the connection to Notre Dame, and kind of a home feeling everywhere I go will be nice.”

Johnson credited current Fighting Irish pitching coach Terry Rooney for helping nurse him back to health, and former pitching coach Brian O’Connor (now the head coach at Virginia) for helping his development.

“With me coming back from shoulder surgery, coach Rooney was probably the best thing that could have happened to me,” Johnson said. “He is very much into mechanics and getting a feel for things and that helped me work through some things after the surgery.

“A big debt of gratitude goes to both of those pitching coaches. Without them, I’m just a thrower. With them, I’m a good pitcher.”