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Friday, December 28, 2012

Accolades pour in for Kel Johnson

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Even when highly ranked, highly regarded and highly respected Georgia first baseman/outfielder prospect Kel Johnson isn't at his best, the accolades continue to pour in.

Johnson would be the first to admit that he pretty much stunk-up the Roger Dean Complex in Jupiter, Fla., with his offensive production at the 2012 PG WWBA World Championship the last week in October. Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound right-handed slugger from Palmetto, Ga., who is home-schooled by his parents Rhonda and Lee, mustered only four hits in 19 at-bats (.211) with a double, home run and four RBI to go along with nine strikeouts while playing for East Cobb Baseball.

Despite that lack of production, PG's managing editor of college baseball Kendall Rogers named Johnson -- a Georgia Tech commit -- to the 10 Prospects to Watch list he compiled at the conclusion of the tournament. Rogers wrote that Johnson "oozed with tools and potential" and is a prospect that "sets his hands well on the bat with authority and consistently shows good power." Rogers concluded his report by proclaiming "Johnson clearly is one of my favorite prospects."

Johnson's performance at the WWBA World Championship -- which East Cobb Baseball won in impressive fashion -- was an anomaly. He has steadily risen to No. 28 in Perfect Game's national prospects ratings for the class of 2014 based on more stellar performances.

He is at this weekend's 2012 Perfect Game National Underclass Showcase-Main Event at the jetBlue Player Development Complex, his 20th Perfect Game event since early June, 2010. This is only the second showcase event he's attended -- he was also here for the 2011 PG National Underclass Showcase-Main Event exactly one year ago this weekend.

"They told me they were having this event again, and I thought, hey, I loved this event last year; I'll just go out and try to put up some new stats and break some of my own old records," Johnson said on a chilly Friday morning at the jetBlue Complex. "It's more exposure; Perfect Game always has great events and it's a chance to come out and play again."

Johnson is a personable, out-going 17-year-old with an easy smile who can somehow seem both relaxed and nervous simultaneously. He speaks in a river of words that can at times become a rushing rapids, all the while exhibiting an excitement for the game he loves. At the same time, he seems fully in control.

"I don't know how many Perfect Game events I've been to ... and as I go along you do become more relaxed and more accustomed to playing in front of the guys with the radar guns and the scouts," Johnson said. "This event I like because I get to come out in the middle of the winter when we're not playing a lot, and get back on the field and go out and play."

That doesn't mean Johnson spends his winters on the couch with a bag of Cheetohs.

"You're going to run a little faster and throw a little harder during the summer, but this time of year I do try to get a little quicker by doing some speed and agility stuff and try to get back into playing condition," he said.

Johnson made his official debut as a member of the East Cobb Baseball organization at the 2010 14u/15u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational June 10-13 at the East Cobb Baseball Complex. After 18 tournaments with the program -- and many more sure to come in 2013 -- he is already emerged as one of ECB's best.

He was named the Most Valuable Player at the 2011 15u BCS Finals when was 12-for-28 (.429) with five doubles, three home runs, 13 RBI and 11 runs scored in the event champion East Cobb Astros 15u's 10 games at the tournament. Johnson was spectacular at the 2012 PG WWBA 17u National Championship in Marietta when he hit .429 (12-for-28) with six home runs, 13 RBI and 10 runs while posting a 1.107 slugging percentage and a 1.607 OPS.

"There's a lot you can say about Kel Johnson but the most important thing that you can say is what a hard worker he is and what a great kid he is, and that just goes above and beyond all his talents," said Kevin Baldwin, the head coach of the multi-time PG national champion East Cobb Braves who was here Friday coaching the PG 13-Texas Orange squad that Johnson is a member of.

"His talents are off the charts, but the fact that he works as hard as he does, and what a great kid he is and what a great teammate he is, is more important than anything else," Baldwin said.

Most of the other roster spots on PG 13-Texas Orange are also filled by East Cobb Baseball prospects, including 2014 third baseman Michael Chavis, a Clemson commit out of Marietta ranked one spot ahead of Johnson at No. 27, and outfielder/shortstop/right-hander Hunter Tackett from Heiskell, Tenn., who is ranked No. 104.

A whole bunch of top 2015 East Cobb Baseball prospects are grouped together on the PG 2-Texas Orange squad being coached by ECB founder, Guerry Baldwin. No. 1-ranked Dazmon Cameron from McDonough, Ga., leads that group.

"It's been amazing; I couldn't ask for anything more," Johnson said of his affiliation with ECB. "Just getting a chance to play down in Jupiter this past fall was probably the highlight of my career, and it was awesome winning a (WWBA) World Championship. I couldn't be happier; I love it and it's given me great opportunities."

One of the main reasons Johnson is here is because he won't allow himself to become lazy or complacent during the offseason. He's worked extremely hard to reach the upper echelon of the PG rankings and wants to make sure there is no regression.

"Every year so far in high school I've noticed some improvement in throwing speed, running speed and weight gain, and all those other things that I monitor," he said. "I've got goals for myself that I'm still trying to reach and Perfect Game helps me monitor that. I come to these showcases to see where I'm at throwing and running and everything, so it's just helpful."

His PG experiences have come primarily at tournament events with East Cobb teams. While a lot of prospects would identify a showcase event as more stressful than a tournament, Johnson doesn't necessarily see it that way.

"There is a time and a place for both," he said. "For me, this is a little more relaxed because you're not really playing for a championship and you can just come out and focus on what you're doing and let people see what you've got."

In the springtime, when other prospects his age are playing for their high school teams, Johnson plays with a team and in a league of fellow home-schooled players that is based in Peachtree City, Ga., and is coached by Esteban Maldonado from Homeplate Baseball.

Johnson said the team is very competitive and has other Division I commits besides himself on its roster this year. Right-hander Casey Lenoch, a 2014 from Newnan, Ga., is home-schooled and joins Johnson on the PG 13-Texas Orange team here this weekend, and has committed to Georgia.

"Mostly for me it's a chance to get out on the field during the spring time, but it is some good competition," he said. "I considered playing for a public high school but then that opportunity came up, and I thought the baseball is just about as good and I might as well do that."

While really having no other circumstance to compare it to, Johnson is a big fan of home-schooling.

"I highly recommend it and I have no complaints," he said. "I have a flexible schedule and I'm able to do what I want to do and conform my workouts to my home-school schedule. It definitely is an advantage for me and I definitely think it has been a positive experience for me."

Johnson carries a 4.0 GPA and had no problem securing a baseball scholarship to academic and athletic powerhouse Georgia Tech. He said people shared with him a wide range of opinions as to when he should make his college commitment. In his case, he was willing to wait until he got the offer that most fit his expectations, and that that offer came from Georgia Tech during his sophomore year.

"It was what I wanted and I knew I wanted to go to Georgia Tech, and I had a talk with my mom and I said if any other school in the nation that gave me the same offer, would I want to go there, and I said no, I wanted to go to Georgia Tech," Johnson said, the excitement growing in his voice as he spoke. "There was no reason to wait."

Georgia Tech head coach Danny Hall has given Johnson every indication he will be able to continue to play both first base and the outfield once he gets on the Atlanta campus. Those positions would fit his propensity for hitting for power.

"I definitely feel like hitting is my strength as a ballplayer," Johnson said. "I'm always working to improve ... and I do work to improve my weaknesses, but right now I definitely feel like hitting and hitting for power is my strength as a ballplayer."

Johnson still has numerous goals, not to mention expectations, to meet. A questioner on Friday was wearing a Perfect Game All-American Classic pullover, a prestigious showcase all-star game for incoming high school seniors -- formerly known as the Aflac All-American Classic -- that will once again be held at PETCO Park in San Diego in August of 2013. Johnson would love to be on the East Team roster at that invitation-only event.

"That's something that amateur baseball players, coming up, they hear about it all the time," Johnson said. "You always hear about Aflac and the All-American Classic and Perfect Game, and that's a huge honor as a player. That would definitely be a huge honor for me if I was invited."

If that moment comes, count on Johnson to be at his best.

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