When the Yankees selected Nick Johnson in the 3rd round of the 1996 draft, the most notable thing about Johnson in the eyes of many was that he was Larry Bowa’s nephew. Tino Martinez was well on his way to leading the Yankees in RBI for three straight seasons, and to producing some memorable post-season moments. First base seemed well in-hand, and a young draft pick seemed very far off.
Johnson broke out immediately when he arrived in pro ball. Still just a 17-year-old through his post-draft season, he recorded a .422 OBP, giving notice to what would be his trademark skill. He followed that up with a trip to the Class-A South Atlantic League and continued to get on base with .398 OBP in his second professional season.
It was 1998 where Johnson officially caught the baseball world’s eye as he produced a 1.004 OPS and was rated as the Yankees’ top prospect following the season. With consistently elite production in his first three minor league seasons, scouting reports began to list his timeline as matching up perfectly with the Yankees’ ability to exercise a team option on Tino Martinez’s contract after the 2000 season.
Baseball America ranked him as the 18th best prospect in baseball, and his game began earning comparisons to Chicago Cubs first baseman Mark Grace, who to that point in his career was a .313 hitter, with an impressive .385 OBP. Johnson was a player on the rise, and his next season was one that has stood the test of time.
Heading to the Double-A Norwich Navigators, Johnson was primed to do something special. Just how special it was is now clear with the benefit of years of hindsight. In 1999, Johnson hit .345/.525/.548. His .525 OBP was 85 points ahead of the next player in the league. That stat was recently listed as the fourth most significant minor league accomplishment in the last 40 years by Baseball America.
During the season, Johnson walked 123 times, and was hit by 37 pitches in 132 games. Only one other player in the last 40 years has recorded even a .500 OBP in the minor leagues, and Johnson blew past the mark. In addition to those absurd on-base skills, Johnson hit .376 against lefties, including seven of his 14 home runs. He had all the makings of an elite prospect who would produce early and often in his major league career.
The comps to Mark Grace continued in the scouting reports, with some also listing Rafael Palmeiro as a potential ceiling. Now rated as the fifth-best prospect in all of baseball, Johnson had just completed one of the best minor league seasons, while at the same time Tino Martinez’s production in the Bronx was sagging, as he finished with a just above league average 104 OPS+. There was an expectation that Johnson could challenge for playing time in 2000 coming out of spring training.
Those expectations were derailed with what would become the story of Johnson’s career: injuries. While checking his swing during spring training, he felt a pop in his wrist, and doctors struggled to find the exact injury. Eventually his hand and wrist were put in a cast and his status improved, but he did not play for the entire year.
Martinez had another down year in 2000 for the Yankees, producing as a below league average hitter. Despite this, with questions now surrounding Johnson, the Yankees picked up his player option.
2001 saw Johnson make his major league debut in with a 23-game cameo. He maintained his prospect status and for the third season in a row was ranked as the 18th-best prospect in the game or better. Despite that the Yankees made a massive investment to sign Jason Giambi in the offseason heading into 2002, meaning that Johnson’s base case scenario involved splitting time with one of the best hitters in the game.
Even with Giambi in the mix, Johnson received extensive playing time over the next two seasons, producing a .383 OBP, and a 118 OPS+ in 225 games. A stress fracture in his right hand cost him several months in 2003, but he played in every postseason game that year.
He was then traded with several other young players for a player who had emerged in Montreal as one of the best young pitchers in the game in Javier Vazquez. Injuries took their toll on Johnson’s career as he only played in 130 or more games three times before retiring 2012. His production did live up to the hype of an outstanding prospect, as his career 123 OPS+ by a sterling .399 OBP. He just wasn’t in the lineup enough truly to make his mark year-in and year-out.
Nick Johnson was on course to be the right prospect at the right time for the New York Yankees. His ascension to the big leagues looked to be timed perfectly with the incumbent first baseman’s expiring contract. Johnson’s 1999 was one of the best seasons any prospect could have, and one wonders how fans and media would react to that type of production from a Yankees minor leaguer today. Instead of locking down first base for years to come, Nick Johnson serves as a reminder that even the best looking prospects have hurdles to overcome on their way to big league success.