The cause behind a move to the bullpen may seem fairly obvious to some: Johnson wasn't putting up the results many had come to expect.
While there is some truth to that, it doesn't tell the entire story, as Cubs Director of Player Development Oneri Fleita explains.
"A lot of times, we try to do a little variety with these guys just by getting them on the mound in more game situations," Fleita said. "[Johnson] may get a chance to extend that in the Fall League, but the big key is to keep him healthy and put him in a situation where he can have success."
Keeping Johnson consistently healthy has been a challenge all right. He missed the first two-plus months of last season as the combined result of a strained hamstring, and shoulder soreness. (He underwent shoulder surgery in college while at Notre Dame and missed all of 2003.)
Johnson has been hampered with injuries again this season, though to a slightly lesser extent. He was placed on the disabled list after experiencing tendonitis in his surgically repaired shoulder. Additionally, he spent the early part of the season dealing with a ripped nail on his pitching finger.
But now Johnson feels healthy, and the Cubs say his velocity is back on the rise after tailing off previously.
"His velocity is up to where we thought it would be, up to 93 [mph] again," Fleita told Inside The Ivy this week. "We think he likes the bullpen role and it looks like he fits the role."
Johnson went 6-0 with a 1.87 ERA for the Irish in his final college season, but has since struggled to routinely showcase the same dominance. He is the first to admit that 2006 hasn't exactly gone his way.
"I don't think I've had a great season personally," admits Johnson, who has allowed 104 hits in 90 2/3 innings at Daytona. "It's been a tough season, but nothing terrible overall. I have gotten to work on a few things and have tried to improve as much as I can."
In 19 appearances from the ‘pen, Johnson is 3-0 with one save and a 4.17 ERA. He's struck out 27 and walked 15 in 36 2/3 relief innings.
Now that he's healthy, it's time to focus on the new role.
"I was talking to my parents and any way you can make it, you make it," Johnson said of pitching in relief. "I don't really have a preference between the bullpen and starting."
Johnson is one of two marquee pitchers taken out of Notre Dame in the Cubs past three drafts. A second-round pick in 2004, Johnson was the organization's first pick overall because the team had parted ways with their first-round choice to sign free agent reliever LaTroy Hawkins from Minnesota.
Two months ago, the Cubs nabbed two-sport athlete Jeff Samardzija from the Irish and signed him to a professional contract almost right away.
When Johnson signed, it was roughly two months after the draft. He wanted to return to college and finish up a Marketing degree. Now, the Illinois native has put those plans on hold temporarily to focus more on his pitching career.
"I had planned to finish up my degree this off-season, but it's kind of on the back-burner right now," he said. "On down the road, I'll finish up. It's just a matter of time. I'm just going to focus on baseball for now."
Johnson will get a chance to do just that even once the season is over. He is one of the Cubs' seven selections that will participate in the annual Arizona Fall League post-season event, which begins Oct. 10. It will be Johnson's first trip to the Fall League, and he isn't sure quite what to expect.
"I really have no idea," he says with a modest laugh. "It's nice to be invited to something like the Fall League. It's a big honor, but as far as being in the league, I don't know much about it. I think I'll get more innings out of the bullpen and find some consistency with my mechanics. Hopefully I can make some pretty big strides for next year."
Asked to elaborate on his mechanical issues, Johnson said:
"I've struggled with finding something that's comfortable for me, and getting back to the way I used to be. I've been struggling ever since I signed and am trying to figure something out. A consistent arm slot and little things like that are part of the problem, and are part of the difficulty of pitching."
As Johnson says, he has no preference between starting and relieving. He also isn't sure how long "Project Bullpen" may last.
"I don't really know what the plans are," Johnson said. "I think I threw out of the bullpen one time in college, where it was a planned assignment, like a piggyback start."