GLENDALE, Ariz. — There are plenty of potential distractions this spring, and Erik Johnson sounds as if he wants to block them all out.
The right-handed pitcher said Friday he feels great, motivated and is excited to be in White Sox camp. And in the face of what could be a heated competition for a spot in the rotation, one in which he could very well end up on the outside, Johnson said his focus is solely on improvement.
Once thought to be a good bet to make the starting five, Johnson is now likely the underdog in a battle after the White Sox signed free agent Mat Latos earlier this month. Jacob Turner is also in the mix for the final spot in the rotation. Both Johnson and Latos have minor-league options left, but the former’s contract would play him $2 million-plus fewer than the latter.
“It’s really noise to me,” Johnson said. “You go through your routine, you do what you’ve got to do, and you control what you can control.
“At this point, I think it’s getting through those four days off the mound. But for me, the objective doesn’t change.”
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A similar approach last year resulted in a fantastic 2015 campaign.
Johnson rebounded from a dismal 2014 season and was named the International League pitcher of the year after he went 11-8 with a 2.37 ERA in 23 games (22 starts) at Triple-A Charlotte. After a promotion to the big leagues, Johnson continued his run with a 3-1 mark and a 3.34 ERA in six starts for the White Sox.
Had it not been for a 2014 season in which he had a 6.46 ERA in five starts with the White Sox and a 6.73 ERA at Charlotte, those numbers might not have been considered as much of a surprise. A former second-round pick, Johnson made a huge splash in 2013, one he rode all the way to the majors that September. He performed so well that Johnson was all but guaranteed a spot in the rotation headed into 2014.
And then his performance bottomed out.
“He should be proud of how far back he came, of how hard he had to work and how he really capitalized on the opportunity to get back to Chicago last year,” pitching coach Don Cooper said. “He was in a place that you don’t want anybody to be in. He kind of fumbled the ball really, fumbled his first opportunity. And he’s lucky enough for another opportunity to come around. Sometimes that doesn’t happen.
“He made good on his next opportunity, and he should be proud of that. He worked hard to get back to where we all knew he was when we drafted him. And now he’s about to try to make the next step in his process.”
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Though he briefly discussed his personal triumph, one that Cooper said has him back on the map, Johnson shifted the focus back toward this season.
“That’s who I am,” Johnson said of his rebound. “That’s my character. I don’t think I shy away from anything.
“Aggressiveness, that’s what I preach. I’m going after whatever goals I have set. I write them down. I look at them. I see them in my mind. That’s what I’m doing. That’s what I’m going after.”
Johnson has been just as aggressive in a quest for knowledge in the offseason. For a second straight year, the Cal product used an outside pitching coach. But Johnson described the information he gains from Cooper and bullpen coach Bobby Thigpen as “huge.” He looks at the offseason work as a complement to his work with the White Sox.
Armed with that additional knowledge and upbeat after last season, Johnson is determined to make himself a factor in the battle for the starting rotation. The distractions, the aspects he can’t control, he intends to pay them no mind.
“It’s my routine, it’s what I’ve got to do to get on the field and I take care of my daily non-negotiables,” Johnson said. “I’m ready to go. I want to be that guy. I want to be here. I want to pitch in the big leagues. I want to have success.”