Micah Johnson, Gordon Beckham And Chicago’s Crowded Keystone

On Tuesday, the White Sox promoted second baseman Micah Johnson from Double-A to Triple-A. In 2013, Johnson split the season between A and High-A, with a brief taste of Double-A, compiling a .312/.373/.451 slash in 601 plate appearances with an eye-popping 84 stolen bases. Our own Nathaniel Stoltz wrote a comprehensive scouting report on Johnson last June, and two of Nathaniel’s statements in that article help place Johnson’s 2014 success into the context of his long-term prospects:

  • “Johnson will go as far as his approach and BABIP take him, and a lot will hinge on how well both facets translate to the upper minors.”
  • “It will be Double-A Birmingham that will begin to solidify the direction Johnson’s career will take.”

Fortunately for Johnson, and the White Sox, he has responded in a big way, succeeding beyond expectations in the specific areas pointed out by Nathaniel last June. As a result, the perception of Johnson as a prospect needs to be reevaluated and likely elevated.

Regarding the approach, Johnson’s 16.3% strikeout rate and 8.3% walk rate across three levels in 2013 were fine, but not exactly outstanding for a guy without a whole lot of pop in his bat. This year, Johnson showed marked improvement in his plate discipline while also facing stiffer competition in Double-A, posting a 15.9% K-rate and 12.4% BB-rate.

Furthermore, Johnson’s .406 weighted on-base average (.329/.414/.466) in 170 Double-A plate appearances this year is a very promising indicator of the direction his career is headed. (On the negative side, he was only 10-for-17 on stolen-base attempts in Double-A, which is certainly a concern that warrants monitoring.)

Coming into 2014, Marc Hulet ranked Johnson as the seventh-best prospect in the White Sox system. Even though it’s only mid-May, I’d feel very comfortable moving him ahead of Tim Anderson and Chris Beck into the No. 5 spot on that list. Now in Triple-A, Johnson is in position to play his way into the majors this season.

However, the White Sox are pretty deep at second base, especially considering that Gordon Beckham, the club’s primary second baseman since 2009, is hitting a perfectly respectable .266/.310/.418. Beckham’s strikeout rate has dipped for the third straight year (19.9% in 2011, 15.3% in 2012, 13.7% in 2013, 13.1% this year), and he already has three homers after hitting just five in 103 games last year.

The fact that Beckham is hitting well so far this season may actually help clear the way to major-league playing time for Johnson. The White Sox aren’t expected to be contenders in 2014 (we currently have their playoff odds at 2.2%) and Beckham, who turns 28 in August, will be a free agent at the end of the season. Second base is a major need for many teams that figure to be in contention this year. Beckham is an easy plus defender at the keystone, and if he keeps hitting, he could bring a nice prospect haul back to Chicago, even as a short-term rental for a contender.

It’s not hard to find prospective dance partners for the Sox if they do decide to move Beckham. The Yankees would likely be interested, as Beckham is a much safer bet than Brian Roberts (or Brendan Ryan, Kelly Johnson, etc.). If the Orioles remain in contention, they may be looking to pull the plug on the Jonathan Schoop experiment. Schoop is the top hitting prospect in Baltimore’s system, but he’s been bad so far in the majors (.224/.268/.362, 27.6% K-rate, 2.4% BB-rate).

Oakland would love to displace the putrid platoon of Eric Sogard and Nick Punto. Both Kolten Wong and Mark Ellis have been terrible for the Cardinals. The Giants could be another option if Marco Scutaro can’t get healthy. See what I mean? There are plenty of suitors out there, should the Sox decide to test the market.

Marcus Semien and Leury Garcia are both already on Chicago’s major-league roster, and will both likely get plenty of chances to prove they belong. However, at this point, Semien is hitting .214/.278/.338 and whiffing in 31.0% of his plate appearances. Garcia, through 156 major-league plate appearances, has a slash of .206/.257/.248 with a 30.8% K-rate, and his career minor-league numbers (.261/.310/.346 in 2,004 PA) don’t inspire much confidence.

Looking forward a couple months, it wouldn’t be surprising if Beckham was wearing another team’s uniform and Johnson was getting a shot at being the regular second baseman for the major-league club. Johnson needs to translate his success at Double-A into sustained production in Triple-A, but if he can do that, he could be a fantasy commodity by year’s end.

The biggest knock against Johnson as a prospect is that he is generally viewed as a below-average defender, but as long as his defense isn’t so bad that it keeps him off the field, that doesn’t matter in fantasy. Johnson’s excellent speed makes him an instant threat to make a serious impact with stolen bases, but if he keeps up the improved approach, he should be able to maintain a solid average, a combination that lends itself nicely to a healthy dose of runs scored.

In short, Johnson is a potential three-category fantasy middle infielder, and is absolutely worth keeping a close eye on as 2014 rolls on. For those of you in dynasty leagues, he’s probably worth adding now if you have a spot for him.

We hoped you liked reading Micah Johnson, Gordon Beckham And Chicago’s Crowded Keystone by Scott Strandberg!

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Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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Just a note, Beckham has one more season of team control, he won’t be a free agent until after the 2015 season.