Drafted out of New Mexico State University in the fifth round of the 2016 MLB Draft, Washington Nationals’ prospect Daniel Johnson was described by Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo at the time as an 80-grade runner on the scouts’ 20-to-80 scale who had some sneaky pop and tools that stood out when they’d scouted him over the years.
“He can fly, I know that,” Rizzo told reporters, as quoted by CSN Mid-Atlantic writer Chase Hughes.
“He’s an 80 runner. He’s a guy that played extremely well, WAC Player of the Year, a guy that we’ve seen in junior college in the past. A guy that comes with a really capable speed, defense, athleticism skill set that plays in the middle of the field. He had a great offensive season hitting some home runs over there at New Mexico State. A guy that’s really exciting to watch.”
In his junior year at New Mexico State, Johnson hit .416 with eight home runs and 15 stolen bases.
Over 62 games in his first taste of pro baseball, the then-20-going-on-21-year-old hit .265 with nine doubles, four triples, and a home run in 263 plate appearances for the New York/Penn League’s Auburn Doubledays.
In his first full season as a professional, Johnson put up a .298/.356/.505 line with 29 doubles, four triples, 22 home runs, and 22 stolen bases in 130 games and 549 PAs between the Nats’ Low-A affiliate in Hagerstown (88 G, 364 PAs) and High-A affiliate in Potomac (42 G, 185 PAs).
Johnson’s big season earned him the Nationals’ Minor League Player of the Year nod, with the Nats noting in a press release on the award that the now-22-year-old ended the season as, “one of just 10 players in all of Minor League Baseball (one of four at the Single-A level) to record at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases,” on the year.
Baseball America ranked Johnson 8th overall on the list of the Nats’ Top 10 prospects for 2018, behind only Victor Robles (No. 1 overall) and Juan Soto (No. 2) amongst the outfield prospects in the organization.
Johnson was also named the Best Power Hitter and Best Outfield Arm in the system by BA’s scouts.
Johnson capped off his first full season as a pro with a trip to the Arizona Fall League, where he went 15 for 69 (.217 AVG) with three doubles and a triple in 17 games.
Not a bad start to his career for a player that MLB.com’s Jim Callis noted this winter was, “barely recruited as a California high schooler and got cut from the team in his first fall at New Mexico State,” then, “... left for Northeastern Oklahoma A&M Junior College,” before he went undrafted in 2014 and, “returned to New Mexico State and went from a semi-regular in 2015 to the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year in 2016.”
Rizzo, in an MLB Network Radio interview last month, gave Assistant General Manager and VP of Scouting Operations Kris Kline the credit for finding the outfielder he said was a sleeper pick of the 2016 Draft class.
“Kris Kline, he recognizes a lot of these sleepers,” Rizzo explained. “He’s one of the best in the business, and our success is directly tied to his ability.
“I’ve been with him for years, and you recognize a guy in Johnson that as far as [being] physically imposing, he’s not the most physically imposing guy, but you talk about a five-tool talent, and when [Kline] said that to me in the draft room, he said, ‘This is one of the five-tool players in the draft,’ and I said, ‘Well, why are we talking about him in the fourth and fifth round if he’s such a five-tool player?’ And he said, ‘Because I think we can get him there in the fifth round,’ because of the situation and he recognized it right off the get-go.
“You’ve got a guy that has that kind of that special speed/power tool. He’s an athlete, and he can roll it, man. He rolls the pole and he likes to swing hard and he’s learning the nuances of being a better hitter, but when you can get those power/speed guys that can play some defense, he can really, really throw, and he can do a lot of things, when you get those guys low in draft, that’s kind of what makes your draft, and [Kris Kline] has been doing it for a long time.”