Toolshed: Nats' Johnson showing many tools

2016 fifth-rounder has 21 homers, 21 steals in first full season

Washington's No. 10 prospect, Daniel Johnson is hitting .303/.364/.517 between two levels in 2017. (Terrance Williams/

By Sam Dykstra / | August 23, 2017 12:15 PM ET

There are seven Minor Leaguers with at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases, and most of them have very recognizable names. Ronald Acuna (20 homers, 39 steals), Fernando Tatis Jr. (21 homers, 29 steals), Scott Kingery (26 homers, 27 steals) and Kyle Tucker (21 homers, 20 steals) each rank among's top 100 prospects. Jose Siri (21 homers, 40 steals) produced the season's longest hitting streak at 39 games. Monte Harrison (20 homers, 24 steals) is starting to stand out in a crowded Brewers system after years of injuries.

Then there's Daniel Johnson, who may not be well-known yet but could be the Nationals' next big five-tool threat.

Washington's No. 10 prospect has hit 21 homers and stolen 21 bags in 116 games between Class A Hagerstown and Class A Advanced Potomac this season, and plenty of folks are taking note of the 2016 fifth-rounder's breakout first full season.

"He's been very impressive for us," said Nationals director of player development Mark Scialabba. "We're proud of the strides he's made in all facets of the game. He had a hot start in Hagerstown, and now obviously that's carried over to Potomac. We're starting to see all five of his tools realized, and it's all very exciting to watch him grow."

Video: Hagerstown's Johnson jacks two-run homer to right

What's perhaps most impressive about the 22-year-old outfielder's 2017 campaign has been the jump in power.

Johnson was lauded coming out of the Draft for his speed, which rates as plus-plus with a 70 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale. That explains the 21 steals. He's also been a defensive force with plenty of range and a plus arm that's led to seven outfield assists, five of which have come from right field.

But his performance at the plate was the biggest question mark. At the end of last season, he was seen as a project offensively, in terms of both his hit and power tools. He's answered the former by hitting .303/.364/.517 between both of his stops in 2017, while the 21 homers -- most by a Nationals farmhand this season -- and 49 total extra-base hits certainly speak to the increased pop.

Johnson still doesn't see himself as a slugger, however.

"I'm really a gap-to-gap hitter," he said. "That's what I'm aiming for: hard contact in the gaps. Otherwise, it's getting on base and stealing bases to put pressure on the other team and help out my teammates. The home runs are there now, too, which is nice. ... But when it comes to my season, I really don't care about the results. If I'm getting quality at-bats, not letting the pitcher get the best of me and making plays on defense, then I'm playing to the best of my ability."

There were hints that power might be coming before he went pro. The California native went deep only four times during his first two collegiate seasons between Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College and New Mexico State but made a big jump with 12 blasts over 57 games as a junior to lead the Western Athletic Conference. He also led the WAC with a .382 average, .630 slugging percentage, 94 hits, 67 runs scored, 155 total bases and 29 steals. He was named the 2016 WAC Player of the Year, to no one's surprise.

After the year of junior college and another spent adjusting to Division I ball -- including a serious right knee injury around the time of his transfer -- Johnson felt like something clicked going into what would be his Draft year.

"I feel like getting more reps was a big thing," he said. "I was trying to build my swing from the ground, really learning how to use power and make things more efficient at the same time. By my third year of college, I felt like I was figuring myself out. Before that, I was trying to do too much with my swing. I would see how other people would swing the bat and try to copy them, instead of doing what was comfortable for me. I felt like I found that sweet spot by then."

The Nationals saw it, too, taking Johnson in the fifth round and giving him a $325,000 signing bonus, just a bit below the $354,300 slot value assigned to the pick. The power didn't immediately transfer to the pro game as the left-handed hitter went deep just once with 13 extra-base hits over 62 games in the New York-Penn League, but both the organization and the player weren't worried as the groundwork was being laid for the future.

"They didn't make too many changes, which I appreciated," he said. "Working with [Nationals hitting coordinator Troy Gingrich] in Auburn, he worked with me on staying in my legs more. ... It was all about making sure my weight is working down toward the ball and not allowing me to get up and out of my legs too much. That's been a big help."

"He's very strong," Scialabba said. "I'd say, pound for pound, he's the strongest athlete we have in this system. In last year's strength and conditioning program, he really dominated in that arena, especially for someone of his size. He added a lot of lean muscle and was really learning to utilize the lower half. He always had that buggy whip, handsy swing with power to the pull side, but now he's even going out to dead center field, too. He's very gifted."

Video: Nats' Johnson makes catch at the wall

Johnson showed off that strength quickly upon his assignment to Hagerstown to begin the season. He went deep twice in his third game with the Suns and finished April with a .296/.369/.580 line, six homers and five doubles in 22 games. He never cooled down, finishing with a .300/.361/.529 line and 17 homers over 88 games in the South Atlantic League before his promotion to Potomac on July 24. He's carried that momentum to the Class A Advanced level with a .314/.372/.483 line and four homers in 28 games for the P-Nats. 

When a college player takes off at Class A as Johnson did, it's worth wondering whether he should've started with a tougher test at Class A Advanced instead. That, however, would've had him competing for time in center with arguably the game's toolsiest outfield prospect, Victor Robles. It's notable that both Robles and Johnson moved up a level on July 24, but the Nationals say even in a vacuum this would have been their plan for Johnson, no matter how the organizational depth chart looks.

"When we sit down to figure out where our prospects will go, sometimes there are multiple players at a position and that can affect things, but with Daniel, we always had the individual plan to send him to Hagerstown first," Scialabba said. "We wanted him to build a foundation there, get some more quality at-bats, and then we had every intention of moving him to Potomac when he showed he was ready."

MiLB include

That depth chart may not have impacted Johnson's plans for 2017, but it could play a role in his future. Washington's most valuable player is franchise cornerstone and right fielder Bryce Harper, who is signed through next season, and just last offseason the organization traded for Adam Eaton, who's missed most of 2017 with a torn ACL but is also signed through 2019. There might be an opening in left -- a position that's been filled by a rotation of veterans like Jayson Werth, Adam Lind and Howie Kendrick -- but there are former and current prospects such as Michael A. Taylor, Brian Goodwin and Andrew Stevenson who've also filled in. Not to mention that Robles' ascension continues as's No. 5 overall prospect continues to tear things up in the Eastern League.

Johnson admitted he'd rather be in a system that's seen so many outfielders climb the ranks and succeed than the alternative, even if it means he'll have to fight for a spot with all five of his tools in the years to come.

"It's fun," he said. "It's good to see guys where you once were working their way to the Majors, making that progression and succeeding. It motivates me that I can get where I want to go, if I can follow their path."

That's exactly what Scialabba and the Nats want to hear.

"We love competition in our system," Scialabba said, "We teach guys to feed off each other. We feel like we have a strong core of veterans with Jayson Werth, Harper and now Eaton, but if you look at our Major League situation, we've had 13 different players play the outfield for us in the Majors. With Andrew Stevenson, last year he was at Potomac and now he's playing a key role in Washington. We want to educate the players on what abilities it takes for them to make those climbs, and then we want to see them control that destiny.

"For me, it's fun to hear Daniel Johnson say he enjoys the push and the motivation because that means he's thinking on the right wavelength. We're excited to see what's next for him."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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