After ten years of futility attempting to do so, George Steinbrenner made the decision to stop trying to purchase free agent starting pitchers and to instead go with some of the organization’s top minor league prospects. The problem with that strategy was timing. If “the Boss” had made that decision earlier in the 1980’s, it might have meant that Doug Drabek would have won his Cy Young Award as a Yankee instead of a Pirate and Jose Rijo might have been World Series MVP for the Bronx Bombers instead of the Cincinnati Reds. But by waiting until the end of the decade, the Yanks were counting on the young unproven arms of prospects like Wade Taylor, Dave Eiland and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant. I don’t know if Steinbrenner played poker but I guarantee you that if he did, he would end up gladly trading that “three of a kind” for just a single ace.
Johnson was the Yankees sixth round pick in the 1988 draft. He had pitched well during his first three years in the lower levels of New York’s farm system but it was his perfect 4-0 start-of-the-season at triple A Columbus that convinced the Yanks to add him to the parent club’s rotation in June of 1991. A six foot three inch well-built southpaw, he was 24 years-old at the time of his Yankee debut and he looked like a Major League pitcher. That look proved to be deceiving.
Johnson’s problem turned out to be an inability to get ahead in the count on big league hitters. Once he fell behind them, his must strike pitches were much to hittable. He finished a disappointing 6-11 during his rookie season, which was not that bad considering that ’91 Yankee team finished in fifth place in the AL East, twenty games below five hundred. What was more troubling however, was Johnson’s first-year 5.95 ERA. He was showing a consistent inability to get outs at the big league level. Taylor finished that year with a 7-12 record and a 6.27 ERA and Eiland’s numbers were 2-5, 5.33. So much for the Yankees’ patience with starting pitching prospects.
Johnson was the only one of the three who would be part of the team’s starting rotation the next Opening Day, but that status didn’t last long. By the end of April he was 1-2 with a 6.57 ERA and first-year Yankee manager, Buck Showalter demoted him to bullpen duty. He got one more shot in the rotation that June but again failed to impress and was sent back to Columbus. That’s where he started the 1993 season as well. His one last big league chance came in June of that season. Showalter brought him in out of the bullpen twice that month and he gave up a total 12 hits and 9 earned runs in those 2.2 innings of pitching. Johnson’s Yankee and big league career were over. He is now a minor league pitching coach.