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Former first-rounder Johnson eyes revival with Bucs

As Pirates gather for workouts, lefty continues standout winter in Dominican

Former first-rounder Johnson eyes revival with Bucs play video for Former first-rounder Johnson eyes revival with Bucs
The Pirates' annual pre-Spring Training voluntary workouts are under way at Pirate City. This year, the conclave is living up to one of its chief purposes, a greet-and-meet mixer for newcomers to the organization.

General manager Neal Huntington likes the gathering, open to players on the 40-man roster and invited others, because "guys enjoy getting to know each other, and it's the first stage to turning the page [from the offseason] and getting everybody's baseball energies flowing again."

The "getting to know" part will be enhanced by various social outings after each morning's workouts, from Monday night's BCS championship game viewing party to golf and fishing junkets.

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Veterans who have dropped by Bradenton, Fla., to turn the spigot on their energies are Clint Barmes and Jose Tabata, with Charlie Morton also on site to continue his escalating rehab from summer Tommy John surgery. Attendees also include such top prospects as right-handers Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole and catcher Tony Sanchez.

But nearly half of the three dozen going through drills are new Pirates. They include three-fourths of the package acquired from Boston in the recent Joel Hanrahan-Brock Holt deal -- infielders Jerry Sands and Ivan De Jesus Jr., and right-hander Stolmy Pimentel. Other fresh faces belong to Andrew Oliver, Clint Robinson, Vin Mazzaro and Zach Stewart.

One missing face, neither new nor fresh, could become quite significant when the real deal begins on Feb. 11 with the first formal workout for Pirates batterymen. Kris Johnson is too busy starring for Escogido in the Dominican Republic Winter League playoffs to make it to Pirate City, but the left-hander will be there soon enough to try to pitch his way into the Bucs' plans.

Johnson could throw his hat into the ring of rotation candidates and compete with Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Oliver, Mazzaro and others. Or he could emerge as a viable candidate to provide a second lefty arm in the bullpen, next to Tony Watson.

In the Dominican, Johnson has continued his dramatic rise from obscurity. Or, his return to faded stature. It's a matter of how one chooses to look at it -- but, either way, he'll be in camp on a non-roster basis to take advantage of the opportunity offered by holes in the Pirates' staff.

Obscurity? The 6-foot-4, 170-pounder ended 2011 pitching for the Kansas City T-Bones in an independent league, where most careers dead-end, not take off.

Stature? In 2006, he was drafted by Boston in the first round -- a bit later than other first-rounders such as Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum and Ian Kennedy.

Years of subsequent progress -- by 2008, he ranked as the Red Sox's fourth-highest pitching prospect, per Baseball America -- came crashing down in 2009-10 with a 9-26 record for Pawtucket, and his release in May 2011 with a 12.63 ERA for the Triple-A club.

The road then led to Kansas City, and a U-turn. Transitioning with the Pirates to a swing role, Johnson began 2012 by going 3-2 with one save and a 2.09 ERA in nine starts and six relief appearances for Double-A Altoona. Promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis, he went 5-2 in 20 games (four starts), with a 4.53 ERA.

Pan to the Dominican: He fashioned an ERA of 0.67 in six regular-season games, allowing a total of only 11 hits in 27 innings. In a 3-2 playoff win on Saturday, Johnson stayed hot by giving up one run in seven innings.

Johnson had been a mere Draft afterthought (50th-round pick by the Angels in 2003) after a prep career at Blue Springs (Mo.) High School that produced five no-hitters, but that was probably due to his perceived commitment to attend Wichita State University. His college career derailed with Tommy John surgery in 2005, but not even that could dissuade Boston from signing him for an $850,000 bonus.

Never a power pitcher, Johnson grew to rely even more on eliciting grounders after the elbow surgery took away his plus-curve. In its place, he has developed a premium changeup as an out pitch to complement a fastball in the 90-93 mph range.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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