Uncertainty’s a certainty for Mitchell's Cobi Johnson as draft nears



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Mon. June 2, 2014 | Matt Baker | Email

Uncertainty’s a certainty for Mitchell's Cobi Johnson as draft nears

HOLIDAY — Cobi Johnson was still wearing diapers when he got his first exposure to the baseball life, shuttling from Tennessee to Toronto or wherever his dad’s professional career took him that month.

Since then, he has hit a home run at Cooperstown, played catch with big leaguers, pitched at Wrigley Field and crisscrossed back roads on his way to travel-ball tournaments.

None of that could prepare the Mitchell High School ace for the uncertainty of this week’s MLB first-year player draft.

Will pro teams remember him as the hard-throwing teenager with the 6-foot-4 frame and let him sneak into the first round? Or will a disappointing senior season and an elbow injury force him to slide, maybe even into the draft’s second day? 

“I hope someone gives me a chance,” Johnson said.

Few prospects have a pedigree more deserving of that chance than Johnson.

His father, Dane, pitched sparingly in high school and college but showed enough promise that Toronto took him with the No. 48 overall pick in 1984. The 6-foot-5 right-hander spent parts of three seasons in the majors with the Blue Jays, White Sox and A’s before becoming Toronto’s pitching coordinator.

Johnson is too young to remember watching his dad play, but his mother shares plenty of stories — about dragging two children from one town to the next, always staying in furnished corporate apartments so they wouldn’t have to worry about transporting couches on three days’ notice.

“You just take off,” said his mother, Gina.

After trying basketball and soccer, Johnson began plastering his wall with baseball photos, and his dad was ready to help. Dane helped develop his son’s pitching motion and training regimen, though Johnson scoffs when his dad threatens to bring out his old VHS game tapes to show him what a real pitcher looks like.

Dane also introduced Johnson to professional life, taking his son to hang around big-leaguers at the Jays’ spring-training facilities in Dunedin. Johnson chatted in the clubhouse with Cy Young winner Roy Halladay. He caught Jays closer Casey Janssen. He saw up close how hard professionals work and how they conduct themselves on and off the field.

“Hopefully a lot of it rubbed off on him,” his dad said.

Johnson started out as a catcher and infielder before beginning to focus as a pitcher in high school. A scout from Perfect Game pegged him as a first-round pick at age 16. His fastball touched 94 mph, with solid curveballs and changeups and a quick, fluid delivery.

Johnson led the Mustangs to the Class 6A region final as a junior with a 1.68 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 71 innings. He pitched in All-America games at Wrigley Field and Petco Park over the summer — the jerseys still hang in his bedroom — and signed with Florida State in the fall.

But elbow inflammation derailed his senior season. Though Johnson pitched Mitchell to the playoffs with a win over Springstead, the injury limited him to only 31 1/3 innings.

“I was devastated, to be honest with you,” Johnson said. “To be so close to the draft and to go down like that, it was tough on me.”

And his family.

After working with Jays scouts for years, Dane has had to watch his own son get picked apart and scrutinized with a potential seven-figure signing bonus at stake.

“He’s still an attractive product to a lot of people, I think,” said his dad, who is also serving as his advisor.

A dozen scouts watched Johnson throw his final prep game— a 4-2 home loss to King — and the Rays invited him to a workout last week. Representatives from at least 20 teams have sat in the living room of the Johnsons’ gated-community home, where a picture of Johnson in a basketball uniform sits below the television and action photos of his father’s big-league career stare from the office.

Baseball America lists Johnson as the draft’s No. 90 prospect, while MLB.com ranks him 77th.

Wherever his baseball future takes him, Johnson has had years to prepare for what’s next, whether it’s the first round, the second day or FSU.

“It’s going to be a grind,” Johnson said. “It’s not always sunshine and roses, you know?”

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com or on Twitter @MBakerTBTimes.

MLB first-year player draft
Live coverage:
MLB Network (Thursday), MLB.com
Rounds 1-Comp B: 7 p.m. Thursday
Rounds 3-10: 1 p.m. Friday
Rounds 11-40: 1 p.m. Saturday

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