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DJ Johnson turned a dominating season at Triple-A into an opportunity

After impressing in Triple-A, the Colorado Rockies called upon 29-year-old DJ Johnson to make his Major League debut in 2018.

You’re reading the 2018 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at the season had by every player to play for the Rockies in 2018. The purpose of this list is to provide a snapshot of the player in context. The “Ranking” is an organizing principle that’s drawn from Baseball Reference’s WAR (rWAR). It’s not something the staff debated. We’ll begin with the player with the least amount of rWAR and end up with the player with the most.

★ ★ ★

No. 25, DJ Johnson (0.1 rWAR)

One of the most exciting things about baseball is the “Cinderella Story,” or getting contributions from unlikely options.

Evan Gattis became a true Cinderella Story for the Atlanta Braves in 2013.

Rich Hill’s return and breakout at the age of 35 with the Boston Red Sox (and now Los Angeles Dodgers) is certainly a Cinderella Story in my mind.

Stephen Cardullo was out of affiliated baseball for five years until the Rockies gave him a minor league contract in 2016. Cardullo ended up receiving time in the Major Leagues in 2016 and 2017. On August 31, 2016, he hit his first two major league home runs in both games of a doubleheader against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Coors Field. Unfortunately, he hasn’t found sustained success. But perhaps the Rockies will find it with their newest Cinderella Story candidate, relief pitcher DJ Johnson.

After going undrafted out of Western Oregon University (where he didn’t even pitch as he was advised to transition to first base), Johnson was fortunate enough to have a scout for the Tampa Bay Rays take notice of him, and the team signed him in 2010 as a pitcher. Johnson ended up spending time in the minors with the Rays, Arizona Diamondbacks, Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels over parts of six seasons. He was also a member of the Miami Marlins from November 24 to December 10, 2015, before the Angels selected him in the Rule 5 draft. Each time he felt he had figured out how to have success, he was derailed by injury after injury. It was a slow climb from Rookie League in 2010 to Class-A Advanced in 2012 to Double-A in 2015. Either due to injury or performance, Johnson found that organizations were simply not bringing him back for another go-round. Kyle Newman of The Denver Post has the entire story of Johnson’s journey here.

After the 2016 season, it was apparent that Johnson would not be receiving an invitation to return to the Angels, and he found himself working at a lumber yard in Ohio (that he even looks like a lumberjack shouldn’t be lost on anyone). But there was one more team out there that was willing to take a flyer.

The Rockies gave Johnson an opportunity on November 14, 2016, and he impressed with a 2.80 ERA for the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats in 2017. Johnson was promoted to the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes in 2018 and served as the closer. He compiled 84 strikeouts in 55 1/3 innings, with a 3.90 ERA and a 2.81 FIP that revealed some misfortune along the way.

At the MLB level, the Rockies were having trouble figuring out how to find success from their bullpen. Adam Ottavino, Scott Oberg, Wade Davis and trade deadline acquisition Seunghwan Oh were carrying the team’s relief corps after Mike Dunn succumbed to injury, and Bryan Shaw, Jake McGee and Chris Rusin were simply unable to find consistency. When rosters expanded in September, the Rockies found Johnson ready to make the jump to baseball’s highest level.

Johnson, the 29-year-old rookie, only pitched 6 1/3 innings with the Rockies in 2018, which is not enough to glean much from statistically. Johnson pitched 2/3 of an inning in his big league debut on September 9, striking out the two batters he faced. In his next appearance, he faced only Nick Hundley, and he went down swinging as well. Johnson finished his season with a 4.26 ERA (all three runs he allowed were given up in one game- a 12-2 blowout loss to the Washington Nationals) and nine strikeouts. What was important about 2018 was that Johnson seemed to gain the trust of manager Bud Black and the Rockies’ front office. He made the Wild Card roster over Shaw, and the National League Division Series roster over both nine million dollar men Shaw and McGee. Johnson pitched in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Milwaukee Brewers and worked around one hit, collecting 2 strikeouts in 2/3 of an inning.

Entering the 2019 season, Johnson has a decent chance of making the Rockies’ roster out of Spring Training. The front office and managerial staff feel as though he’s shown poise in big moments and if he can pitch like he’s shown he is able, he could be a boon to a bullpen that seems set to lose Ottavino to free agency and will be relying on veterans to become rebound candidates.