SARASOTA, Fla. — Sitting in the second deck of Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas on the first day of last August, Seth Johnson tried to wrap his head around what had just happened, and what was to come.
He was scheduled to undergo Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in two days, the first step in a recovery process that can take a full year. About four hours earlier, when he stepped off the plane in Texas prior to his operation, the calls began flooding his phone: Johnson had been traded to the Baltimore Orioles, part of a three-team trade that sent Trey Mancini to the Houston Astros.
The calls would continue, all the way up to first pitch for a game he and members of his family already had tickets for: the Rangers were playing the Orioles that night.
“Obviously,” Johnson said, “cheered for the Orioles for the first time.”
On Friday, Johnson stood in Orioles gear from head to toe inside the clubhouse at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Florida. His recovery from Tommy John surgery will still last late into the summer. He only began throwing a month ago.
But the fact he’s here in Sarasota is a boost for Johnson and it underscores Baltimore’s belief in him, despite the lengthy road to recovery still ahead.
Johnson was added to the 40-man roster this winter to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, despite the likelihood that he might not return to affiliate play during 2023. The Orioles view Johnson as part of their future, so he’s in Sarasota for rehab in the present.
“We view him, and the industry has viewed at times, as a top-100 talent,” executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said the night he traded Mancini for Johnson and right-hander Chayce McDermott. “Seth Johnson, get him healthy, he projects as a mid-rotation starter. He has since the draft. And this was something, you don’t get opportunities like this if they’re not difficult. We decided to make this trade, but it’s certainly a bittersweet moment.”
Parting with Mancini, a franchise cornerstone, came as Baltimore declared that it wasn’t ready to compete. Elias traded Mancini and closer Jorge López for pitchers who might impact the major league squad in years to come.
Johnson is the highest regarded of any of the returning players from those trade deadline deals. In MLB Pipeline’s end-of-year rankings, he slotted in as the Orioles’ No. 10 prospect. His fastball — when he’s healthy — touched the upper 90s, and his slider induces whiffs.
In his 27 innings last year in High-A ball, Johnson posted a 3.00 ERA and struck out 41 batters. The former 40th overall pick in 2019 recorded a 2.88 ERA in 2021. The Orioles believe those strong performances will translate to higher levels of baseball.
During that Rangers-Orioles game, Baltimore’s director of player development Matt Blood ventured into the stands to sit with Johnson for several innings. The next day, Johnson returned to the park and chatted with pitching coach Chris Holt in the dugout of a major league stadium, momentarily pushing thoughts of his next-day surgery from his head.
He had only been traded hours before, and yet there he was in the second deck, taking in his new ball club in person.
“It was kind of a whirlwind,” Johnson said. “It was probably the best-case scenario for a trade anybody could have.”