Draft Buzz: Q&A with Leon Johnson

Johnson has the speed

One of the first known signings from the Cubs' 2007 draft class is 10th-round pick Leon Johnson, a left-handed hitting outfielder from BYU that was drafted three times previously by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Johnson batted .248 in 54 games with the Cougars this past spring upon returning to BYU following a two-year mission in Siberia. A fixture at the top of the order, he stole 29 bases in 37 attempts.

A prep standout at Thatcher (Ariz.) High School, he was named the Arizona Class 2A Athlete of the Year, where he doubled as an outfielder/pitcher.

The 22-year-old Johnson began his collegiate career in 2004 at Eastern Arizona College, where he batted .434 and was named team MVP, Athlete of the Year, first-team All-Conference and an All-American.

On Monday, Johnson arrived in Mesa, Ariz., where he officially signed a professional contract with the Cubs.

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Being that you were drafted in the lower rounds three times previously, did you expect to go as high as the 10th round this year?

I expected to go a little higher actually. I was really happy with the way it worked out, though. The Cubs have been my favorite team since I was born and I was happy to get on with them.

Your coach at BYU, Vance Law, had plenty of good things to say about your work in center field this season. Is that your natural position?

I came to BYU as an outfielder. In high school, I was a pitcher and an outfielder. Then I went to junior college for a year and was supposed to do both there. I had some offers to pitch and some offers just to play the outfield, but I decided on the outfield because that's what I was better at. It's worked out pretty well.

As a hitter, what do you bring to the table?

I'm a contact hitter. I don't strike out a lot. I like to jump on the first few pitches I see. In some ways, that doesn't make me a great leadoff hitter because if I get a first-pitch fastball for a strike, I'm going to swing at it, whether I should be going deep into the count or not. I just feel that if a pitcher makes a mistake, I should jump on it as early as I can.

At the same time, while I'm really aggressive on that first pitch, I'm only aggressive if it's a good pitch. I don't try to hit a lot of home runs; I just try to put the ball in play. My ideal hit is a single so that I can steal second and third base. I'd rather have a single than a triple because I love stealing bases; it's my favorite part of the game.

Do you envision staying in the leadoff spot both short-term and long-term?

Later on in my career, I want to become a three-hole guy and hit a lot more home runs. I feel I can put on a good 30 pounds to my frame with being able to focus completely on baseball and not just school. I don't think I'll ever be a Barry Bonds kind of hitter, but the power and speed he brought to his team early on in his career, that's the kind of hitter I want to be.

How much of a role do you think speed played in the Cubs' decision to draft you?

Well, I didn't have a good year offensively. I actually had a pretty bad year offensively, but their scouting director (Tim Wilken) saw me play before my mission. I was swinging a wooden bat and hit .434 in an Arizona JC League. He knows that I can hit and I know I can hit. For some reason, it wasn't clicking at BYU. But it will click. I'm positive about that.

We know you played a variety of different sports throughout high school. What made you decide on baseball as THE one?

I was just better at baseball, plus I come from a baseball family. My older brother was drafted by the Mariners and I have another older brother (Elliot Johnson) that's in Triple-A right now. My little brother, Cedric, was also just drafted, so we're all baseball players.

This past season, what were some of the things you worked on all-around?

The biggest thing really was just getting back my endurance. There's no way I could have expected the challenge of getting back into shape after two years off. I thought it would be a lot easier than it was. I used to be able to spend two hours in the weight room because I have sort of a football mentality there. But I couldn't spend 15 minutes there right back from my mission. That was the toughest thing. I came in and had three months before fall ball started to get back into shape, so that was my first step.

I also wasn't comfortable at the plate for the first several months, so the other thing was just getting my confidence back to where I could hit anything the pitcher brought. Getting confident and comfortable was a really big factor. Then once I got that back, I tried to remember my old swing from before my mission; trying to hit balls to the left side because that's kind of where I made my living a lot of the time. If I got down in the count, I'd try to slap the ball through the five or six hole.

In the outfield, I had to get my instincts back so that took awhile, too; being able to judge the ball as soon as it gets off the bat, and being able to track down balls and dive for balls. All that stuff just had to come back to me.

Do you feel you're back to that point 100 percent?

I do. I feel I'm going to get a lot better, but I feel I'm better than I was before my mission. I feel that my arm is stronger and that I'm faster. I'm more confident at the plate and have more power than I had. I know that playing every single day, I'm going to get a lot better and become a big leaguer as fast as I can.

Earlier, you talked a little about your approach at the plate. How would you describe your actual swing for those that haven't seen you play?

I have either a level swing or a slightly downward swing. My dad always taught me – and I don't think it's necessarily a good thing – to swing down on the ball to try to get the backspin on it. To an extent, that makes my swing not as level as it should be because I sometimes chop the ball. But for the most part, I have a pretty good, level swing. When I get hold of the ball, it goes pretty far. When I don't, it doesn't go very far at all (laughs).

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