GLENDALE, Ariz. -- An Opening Day rotation spot appears to be Erik Johnson's to lose as pitching coach Don Cooper suggested the rookie has the inside track for one of two vacant starting roles.
“He’s definitely in the mix,” Cooper said after Monday’s team workout. “He ended the  season with us. He’s penciled in pretty firmly so if he goes out there and does what he could do, there’s a pretty good chance that he’s got an edge.”
At the same time, Cooper also said that he isn’t a fan of letting spring training results dictate decisions. The thinner, dry air in the desert has its biggest effect on curveballs, according to the pitching coach.
“On the back of their baseball cards is not what they do in spring training, it’s what they do during the course of the season. I don’t like going on spring training. I like to go on what we see at the major league level, but in some cases we have to go on spring training and what they have done in the minor leagues because they don’t have a big league track record.”
Relying on information other than Cactus League results would seem to bode well for Johnson, who has dominated at the minor league level since being selected in the second round out of Cal in 2011.
In 2012, his first full season in the minors, the right-hander posted a combined 2.53 ERA over 17 starts at two different Class-A levels. Last season, he tore through Double-A Birmingham with an 8-2 record and a 2.23 ERA in 14 starts before a promotion to Triple-A Charlotte. In 10 starts with the Knights he went 4-1 with a 1.75 ERA.
A September promotion to the White Sox saw him go 3-2 with a 3.25 ERA over five starts, and that final month of the year is presumably where Cooper will take much of his information when finally writing down that rotation in ink.
“There’s work to be done and the big work for the pitchers is to get the innings and pitches up to where we need to get them for the starters,” Cooper said. “Spring training, to me, for our big league guys is getting them ready for Opening Day.”
With a big opportunity staring him in the face, Johnson is still trying to keep things simple.
"To me, I think it’s just taking your mind to the glove," Johnson said. "Do what you can control and if you can command the little things and work ahead in the count, first-pitch strikes, take care of what you need to take care of on your off days, by the time you get to your game, you can just have fun."