SARASOTA, Fla. – Seth Johnson has a locker inside the Orioles' spring training clubhouse, his seat at one end of a row that includes veteran Kyle Gibson and heralded rookies Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall. Johnson is on the 40-man roster and various organizational top-prospect lists, placing 10th in the most recent rankings from MLBPipeline.com, 12th on Prospects150 – which describes his upside as “immense”- and 16th by The Athletic.
Where you won’t find Johnson after the Orioles break camp is on an affiliate’s roster. He can’t pitch following his Tommy John surgery in August, two days after they acquired him from the Rays in a three-team trade that sent clubhouse leader and inspiration Trey Mancini to the Astros.
The Orioles obviously knew of the pending procedure, which likely made him available, along with the deep pitching in Tampa Bay’s system, and deemed him as worth the wait.
Many baseball insiders regarded him as a steal.
Johnson, a 24-year-old right-hander and 40th overall pick in the 2019 draft out of Campbell University, the same North Carolina school that produced center fielder Cedric Mullins, had a hunch that he might be traded. But he also knew the unique circumstances, his elbow injury hardly an industry secret, could dissuade some teams from pursuing him.
The news came to him via a phone call from a Rays official while he waited for his father at the rental car counter after arriving in Dallas for his surgery.
“With the Rays, you know there’s always going to be a roster crunch just because of how they operate,” he said yesterday morning. “In the back of my mind, I thought I was going to get traded, but because of the surgery, I wasn’t too sure, just because it was kind of a weird situation and stuff. But it was in the back of my head.
“It was kind of surprising, but when it actually happened, it took a minute to set in. Once it did, it feels right.”
Has to be flattering, right? A team making an aggressive attempt to get him, with three clubs involved, while knowing that he might not return to the mound until instructional league play begins in the fall, if not later.
“It’s a good feeling to be wanted by somebody,” he said, “even if you’re not healthy at the time.”
Johnson is working out in Sarasota, a month into a throwing progression that’s moved him out to 75 feet.
“That’s been nice,” he said. “Playing catch, just building my arm back up.”
Nothing has been told to Johnson that presents a timeline for his return to pitching. He owns a 2.81 ERA in 39 minor league games with 172 strikeouts in 137 2/3 innings, reaching High-A Bowling Green last year before being shut down.
“Not really sure. We try to just take it one day, one week at a time,” he said.
“I might be pitching in games in August. It’s a weird time of year, so we’ll have to wait and see.”
Pitchers with reconstructed ligaments in their elbows no longer are likely to pursue other career opportunities. They come back, sometimes throwing harder.
Not every story is a success, but the sad endings are fewer.
“It hasn’t been too bad so far, honestly,” he said. “It’s gone by a little quicker than I anticipated. It’s been a lot of work in the weight room, but I enjoy that part, so it’s actually been kind of an enjoyable process.”
This is Johnson’s first major league spring training. The Orioles put him on the 40-man to protect him in the Rule 5 draft, knowing they weren’t the only club excited about his upside and not in need of an immediate return on its investment.
Each day provides another chance to soak in the atmosphere, to listen and learn. And to get comfortable in a major league setting.
“A lot of guys in here that I see on TV, it’s kind of cool to see them in person, get to talk to them and interact with them,” said Johnson, who worked out in Sarasota and at his Fort Myers home before camp started.
“I’m very excited about the future of this organization. A lot of young superstars, I feel like, are in this locker room. It’s not unfamiliar because the Rays have high talent, too, but it’s definitely an exciting time to be here.”