Chicago White Sox pitching prospect Erik Johnson will make his major league debut today against the New York Yankees. 2013 has been a very strong year for the young right-hander, and a good run in September will put him at the forefront of Chicago's plans for 2014. White Sox boosters are understandably intrigued, but fantasy owners and general baseball fans need to pay attention to Johnson as well.
Johnson was a starting pitcher for three years at the University of California. His junior year in 2011 was solid: 2.83 ERA, 102/59 K/BB in 105 innings, just 68 hits allowed. His command needed work, but he dominated at times and was selected in the second round of the draft that spring. Some shoulder soreness delayed his debut in 2012, limiting him to 43 innings for Low-A Kannapolis (2.30 ERA, 39/19 K/BB) and 49 more innings for High-A Winston-Salem (2.74 ERA, 48/10 K/BB). He was successful at both levels, but the split stat line made it easy to overlook him if you weren't careful.
Opening at Double-A Birmingham for 2013, he made 14 starts, going 8-2, 2.23 with a 74/21 K/BB in 85 innings. Promoted to Triple-A Charlotte in late June, he went 4-1, 1.57 in 10 starts with a 57/19 K/BB in 57 innings.
Overall this season, Johnson has gone 12-3, 1.96 ERA with a 131/40 K/BB in 142 innings, allowing a mere 100 hits and a .197 average against. He has been one of the most successful pitchers in the minors this year, but hasn't received much attention for it outside of White Sox circles.
Johnson is a big guy at 6-3, 235 pounds, a right-handed hitter and thrower, born December 30, 1989. He had control problems in college due to balky mechanics, but the Sox smoothed his delivery out and it is much more consistent now. As a result, his command took a large step forward. Stuff was never the problem: he can hit 96 MPH, works consistently at 91-94, and locates the fastball well. He has a full array of secondary pitches, featuring an above-average slider, a solid curveball, and a change-up that has greatly improved over the last two years.
Debuting in Yankee Stadium is a trial by fire. At this point, the main goal for September is to get his feet wet and make him ready for a larger role in 2014. He needs to put the finishing touches on his command, which still wobbles at times.
Johnson has the frame of a workhorse and generally projects as an inning-eating mid-rotation starter. That might be underselling him a bit; he has come a long way in the last two years, and continued improvements would make him quite formidable.
Don't overlook him.