For the first time in years, the White Sox' minor-league system isn't rated one of baseball's worst.
Beefing up the farm has been a priority for new general manager Rick Hahn, and the Sox now boast promising prospects like shortstop Tim Anderson, outfielders Courtney Hawkins, Trayce Thompson, Jared Mitchell and Jacob May, infielder Carlos Sanchez and pitchers Chris Beck, Chris Bassitt and Tyler Danish.
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Baseball America has long been the authority on minor-league baseball, and has also ranked the White Sox' system in the lower half every year since 2007. The publication explained why the Sox are on the rise:
"A major reason for the improved talent and depth in the White Sox' system is the club's decision to spend on scouting and player development, which is directly related to the current labor agreement. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf disdained the old draft rules and restricted his club's spending on amateurs. From 2007-11, Chicago spent just $18.3 million on bonuses, barely half the league average. Under the new rules, however, the White Sox have spent every penny of their signing bonus pools, and under assistant to the GM Marco Paddy, they are working hard to be a factor in Latin America."
One of the Sox' brightest prospects is second baseman Micah Johnson.
Last season, the former Indiana standout combined to hit .312 with 24 doubles, 15 triples, 7 home runs, 58 RBI and 131 runs scored in 131 games with Class A Kannapolis, A Winston-Salem and AA Birmingham.
Johnson only played five games with Birmingham at the end of the regular season before sparking the Barons to the Southern League championship while going 14-for-38 with a double, triple, 7 RBI in the playoffs.
The 25-year-old Indianapolis native also stole seven bases for Birmingham in the postseason after leading all minor leaguers with 84 steals during the regular season.
Still in major-league camp with the White Sox, who scored the fewest runs (598) in the American League last season, Johnson has put himself on a literal fast track to the majors.
"We're seeing him for the first time up here in big-league camp regularly," Sox manager Robin Ventura said last week. "It's a pretty big jump to go where he was last year, (but) he's continuing to improve and he's getting better as you see him up here. I think it's good for him to get introduced to this and get the exposure to it. But probably making the team right now, it's probably a longshot."
With starting second baseman Gordon Beckham still on the mend with a left oblique strain and possibly headed to the disabled list, Johnson could break camp with the White Sox.
But considering he spent the majority of the 2013 season at the Class A level, Johnson is well aware of where he stands.
"Making the (major-league) roster, I think that's the goal for everybody," Johnson said. "You can go over to the minor-league camp and ask somebody that and they'll say the same thing. Obviously, you want to play well wherever you start the season and hopefully you can continue that success and come up to the big leagues and help the team win. That's ultimately my goal.
"I'm not going to be a prolific power hitter or anything but I think I can be a guy that can do something to help the team win each day, by stealing a base in a pinch-run opportunity and another guy gets a hit and I score. That's my game. How can I help the team win that day? I try to keep on working on that and I'll do that no matter what level I start at."
No matter where he starts the upcoming season -- Birmingham, Class AAA Charlotte, even the White Sox -- don't expect Johnson to make another push at 100 stolen bases.
"Last year, I was stealing at the beginning of the season just to steal," said Johnson, who stole 61 bases at low-A Kannapolis. "Two outs and I'd steal third. But stealing bases all the time isn't always necessary. This year, I'm going to focus on stealing at appropriate times, at times that can benefit the team. If I can get a two-out single, I want to be able to steal second so I can score on a hit anywhere. I don't think the number of steals is as important as the runs I create from the steals."
Johnson likely would have been drafted higher out of college if not for a nerve injury in his right elbow that required surgery and limited him to 24 games as a junior with the Hoosiers.
Off to a great start in the Arizona Fall League following the 2013 season, Johnson played only six games before having another surgery that appears to have permanently fixed the nerve problem.
"It feels great; no problems at all," Johnson said. "After the surgery, I got down here (Arizona) in early January and was able to get on the field and get my defensive work in. I just continue to work hard. All through last year, even with the success, you have to work hard and you have to understand your position.
"I was in low-A having success and now I want to have success at this level. So you have to continue to work hard."