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What to do with Troy Johnston, the hottest hitter on the planet

The Marlins prospect has emerged from an initial Double-A slump to re-establish himself as a fascinating offensive player.

Pensacola Blue Wahoos first baseman Troy Johnston stands in the batter’s box wearing a “Pensacola Mullets” jersey Courtesy of Pensacola Blue Wahoos

I am not exaggerating: first baseman Troy Johnston (Double-A Pensacola) is the hottest hitter in baseball, period. At least in U.S. affiliated professional baseball. Over the last two weeks, nobody in the majors or minors has as many hits as Johnston (27), according to Baseball-Reference. Johnston played all of those games at Blue Wahoos Stadium, which isn’t a hitter-friendly environment by any means, and mashed four balls over the wall.

I want you to watch each of these recent home runs. Anything jump out to you?

The left-handed batter can go deep without selling out for pull power. By direction (and in chronological order), his 2022 homers have gone to left-center, left field, right-center, left field and right-center.

Power is not actually a strength of Johnston’s game. When he participated in the 2021 Arizona Fall League, the highest exit velocity on any of his batted balls that were tracked by Statcast was 104.9 miles per hour. For context, Marlins soft-contact maestros Miguel Rojas and Willians Astudillo have already maxed out this season at 106.4 and 106.3, respectively.

Johnston is limited defensively, too. The Gonzaga University outfielder converted to first base in 2021. He avoids egregious mistakes (only one error committed for the Blue Wahoos in 352 13 innings), but his scoops and reaction time leave something to be desired.

I briefly dropped Johnston out of my Marlins Top 30 prospects list due to these flaws. However, his dominance on Pensacola’s last homestand vaulted him back up to No. 27. Any player who sees the ball so well against upper-minors right-handed pitching must at least be on the MLB radar.

Johnston’s first quarter of the 2022 season—.222/.313/.265, 57 wRC+ through May 14—looks to have been an anomaly. Since entering pro ball as a 17th-round selection in the 2019 MLB Draft, he leads all Marlins minor leaguers in hits. Turning 25 years old later this month, he’s been older than the average age of his competition throughout this journey, but not by a wide margin.

The 2020 MiLB season was canceled and the 2021 one was shortened. As a result, we haven’t had the opportunity to get to know Johnston as intimately as the typical everyday player who’s spent three years in the organization. In the blink of an eye, decision time is rapidly approaching. Johnston will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft in December if not protected on the Marlins 40-man roster beforehand.

This Alex Ferrer tweet got me thinking:

Johnston has forced himself into the same grouping as fellow 1B/DH options Jesús Aguilar, Garrett Cooper, Lewin Díaz and Jerar Encarnación. I believe it’s a lock that at least one of these players gets traded this summer as the Marlins get out in front of their 40-man roster crunch.

For the Marlins, this is their last chance to get anything in return for Aguilar, who’ll be a free agent after the season (assuming either side declines his 2023 mutual option). It’s ideal timing if they wanted to sell high on Cooper (career-high 139 wRC+ and no IL stints yet this season). If they prefer the comfort of those known commodities, Díaz, Encarnación and Johnston should be on the table.

Prospects like Johnston with fringy raw tools often get overlooked by pro scouts, even with his outstanding 132 wRC+. A few weeks ago, the Marlins were probably optimistic about being able to sneak him through the Rule 5 without a 40-man spot and move him up to Triple-A in 2023. Catching fire to the extent that he has complicates the situation.