By Joshua Iversen
On Friday night, while all eyes were on the Seattle Mariners and New York Mets as they inched closer to a true blockbuster trade. However, it was the Washington Nationals that grabbed the headlines across the league. Less than two weeks after signing free agent Kurt Suzuki, the Nationals came to agreement with the Cleveland Indians on a trade that would send catcher Yan Gomes to Washington in exchange for prospects Daniel Johnson and Jefry Rodriguez, as well as a player to be named later.
Gomes, 31, is coming off of a nice bounce-back year for a Cleveland team that was running dangerously low on budget room. A large part of this deal was moving Gomes’ contract – $7 million in 2019, with team options for $9 million and $11 million the next two seasons. However, the Indians also received two very interesting prospects in return, both of whom could make an impact on the MLB roster in 2019.
The main piece of this deal is Daniel Johnson, a 23-year-old outfielder who ranks 12th in Cleveland’s system according to MLB.com. Johnson’s best tools are his speed and his arm, but he has the swing and raw power to potentially be an all-around threat.
Johnson attended Bethel High School in Vallejo, California, but went undrafted. After a year of junior college at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, he transferred to New Mexico State for his sophomore and junior years. Over his three collegiate seasons, Johnson slashed .336/.414/.507 with 16 home runs and 45 stolen bases in 139 games. He also played a very strong center field. His breakout 2016 campaign earned him Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year Honors.
“He certainly had some tools, but for a prospect of Daniel’s caliber, most area scouts thought he came out of nowhere,” NMSU assistant coach and pitching coach Joel Mangrum told Jason Groves of the Las Cruces Sun News. “He just worked his butt off with (head coach Brian Green) and developed as a hitter. He proved that his speed plays in games and he proved that he can hit for average and hit for power.”
Johnson became only the second NMSU Aggie to be drafted in the first ten rounds when the Nationals selected him with their fifth-round pick (154th overall) in 2016. He got his feet wet in Low-A in 2016, but really took off in 2017. He was named the Nationals’ Minor League Player of the Year after slashing .298/.356/.505 with 22 home runs and 22 stolen bases between Single-A and High-A.
Entering 2018, Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs ranked Johnson the ninth-best prospect in the Nationals system, writing “if he continues to make adjustments, he has everyday potential.” Johnson got his first taste of Double-A in 2018 and struggled at times with his power and contact numbers dipping for the first time in his young career.
Johnson has big tools but is still surprisingly raw for a prospect drafted out of college. After the trade, Longenhagen wrote, “He’s so gifted, physically, that he’s very likely to have some kind of big league career, though how impactful that career is will be dictated by the development of bat-to-ball skills that are currently behind what is typical for a 23-year-old prospect at Double-A.”
While Johnson has his shortcomings, he also has loud tools and a high ceiling. If 2019 goes well, he could end the season at the big league level. Johnson’s unique power-speed combo, and plus defensive tools, mean the left-handed hitter could profile similarly to Brett Gardner of recent years. A potential 20-20 threat that plays a more than capable center field.
After a 2018 season that saw Jefry Rodriguez fly through the minors and make his Major League debut, the hard-throwing righty is no longer prospect eligible. However, the 25-year-old is a nice piece for a contender like Cleveland to have on their roster. He could be utilized as either a depth starter or late-inning bullpen arm in the future.
Originally a shortstop, Rodriguez signed with the Nationals out of the Dominican Republic for $75,000 and converted to the mound in 2012, as an 18-year-old. Rodriguez was stretched out as a starter and slowly worked his way through the minor leagues. His best season came in 2017, but was interrupted by an 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.
“I thought everything was over,” Rodriguez told Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post in Spanish. “[But] I returned more ready. Better than before.”
Rodriguez proved it with an incredibly successful 2018 season. After being added to the Nationals’ 40-man roster prior to the season to protect him from the Rule Five draft, Rodriguez soared from Double-A all the way to the big leagues. He made 14 appearances (eight starts) for Washington and posted 5.71 ERA over 52 innings, largely due to issues with his command.
Of Rodriguez, Longenhagen writes, “He’ll show you an above-average curveball and his changeup has sinking action at times, but Rodriguez’s stiff delivery is hard to repeat and he has scattered fastball control and throws lots of non-competitive changeups. He profiles as a two-pitch reliever.”
Even if he’s just an affordable, flamethrowing reliever, Rodriguez is a great addition for a Cleveland team that is low on funds and has issues in their bullpen. But, with some work from Cleveland’s coaching staff, perhaps Rodriguez can develop into a back-end starter.