For the past five years, Mark Johnson has slowly crept up the Cubs’ organizational ladder. After spending the past five seasons at the lower levels of the minors, he will be at AA Tennessee in 2016. Johnson has brought his expertise as a major league catcher to bear in developing a winning attitude on the field for his teams. Johnson’s best attributes as a manager are his no-nonsense style, his organization, and his handling of young pitchers and catchers. We tend to the think of the minor leagues as being all about the development of the players, but they’re where managers and coaches are developed, too.
Before being promoted to Tennessee, Johnson spent two years at short-season Boise, two years at low-A Kane County, and one at high-A Myrtle Beach. He has been in the playoffs four of his five years as manager in the Cubs system, including back-to-back championship seasons at Kane County in 2014 and last year at Myrtle Beach. In 2014 he was named the Midwest League Manager of the Year along with Baseball America’s Minor League Manager of the Year. In 2015, he was named Carolina League manager of the Year.
After a 2014 season in which half his roster turned over at Kane County, Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein said this of Johnson:
He’s created an unbelievable atmosphere where the players learned to care about the team ahead of themselves. They really supported each other. They got better. They had a knack for coming back in games, not giving up, learning how to win. He kept them all focused, really kept a winning atmosphere around that team even though it wasn’t the same group of guys.
As a result of Epstein’s profuse praise and subsequent promotions, the question needs to be asked: Are the Cubs grooming Mark Johnson to be a coach at the major league level?
Cubs management has taken notice of the rapport he has with his players. If he can do it at the minor league level, what is to say he can’t do the same at the major league level? Many of the players he has managed throughout his tenure are close to making it to Chicago in the next year or two, and it’s possible Johnson could be promoted with them.
Over the last two years combined, Johnson’s teams have won 172 games and had the highest winning percentage of any team in the organization for each year. For Johnson, the ability to win with pretty much the same group of players at two different level speaks to his expertise and how he handles players on a daily basis.
“You utilize your resources,” Johnson said of his managerial style. “That’s how you get an edge on somebody, but you can overanalyze anything. Not just in baseball stats but personalities and life. I like to think of things as simple as I can.”
At only 40 years of age, Johnson is only five years removed from being a professional ballplayer. Having played for several organizations, most notably the White Sox, over 17 years, he called it a career after a stint in AAA Iowa in 2010. That kind of experience lends a great deal of credence when Johnson provides instruction on how something should be done.
“I do use it (his recent playing experience) to kind of relate and understand what these guys are going through. It helps you a little bit. Everybody’s different, whether they got a bunch of money or didn’t. Everybody has their own personality. You use that when you need to. That’s what makes coaching unique. You’re trying to get the best out of those guys.”
Going forward, Johnson’s career path is still unknown. This year will be his first with pitching coach Terri Clark. Over the previous three years, Johnson worked with pitching coach David Rosario, who is going to work with the great young arms at South Bend. Clark is the former minor league pitching coordinator for the Seattle Mariners and will now be entrusted with some of the Cubs’ top pitching prospects in the upper minors, including Duane Underwood.
Shortly after taking the reins at Tennessee, Johnson spoke of the challenges before him:
“Anytime you can move up a level, it’s always a good thing. The game doesn’t change too much. It’s just a different league. It’s an older league, which is nice. It’s going to be fun.”
It should be fun indeed to see how all the pitching talent, not to mention Johnson himself, adjusts to the move to double-A.