Johnson Signs with Houston Astros

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky baseball senior infielder/outfielder Neiko Johnson has signed a free-agent contract with the Houston Astros, it was announced on Monday.

A native of Redan, Ga., Johnson completed his five-year career with the Wildcats in 2011. After signing the contract on Sunday night, Johnson will report to the Tri-City Valley Cats in the New-York Penn League, the rookie-level affiliate of the Astros, on Tuesday. The first full-season league in the Astros minor league system is the low class A affiliate Lexington Legends. No former Kentucky player has ever played for the Legends. The Valley Cats open their 2011 season on Friday with a three-game home stand.

Johnson is the seventh UK player to be drafted or sign a professional contract in the 2011 MLB Draft, as six Kentucky stars were selected last week. UK junior right-hander Alex Meyer became the second-highest draft pick in program history as the No. 23 pick in the first round by the Washington Nationals. Outfielder Chad Wright (ninth round, Detroit Tigers), Braden Kapteyn (15th round; Boston Red Sox), Taylor Black (16th round; Philadelphia Phillies) and Jordan Cooper (22rd round; Pittsburgh Pirates) were picked.

A speedy 5-foot-9 utility man, Johnson came to UK out of baseball factory Redan High School in 2008, a school that has produced Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips and his brother P.J. Phillips and former MLB infielder Chris Nelson.

Johnson entered his senior season coming off a dynamic summer in the Coastal Plains League and boasted 24 stolen bases in just 21 starts as a junior for UK. Known for a disciplined approach at the plate and as one of the top base runners in the Southeastern Conference, Johnson batted leadoff for the first four games of the season, rotating between second base and rightfield. Off to a .308 (4-for-13) start, Johnson suffered a finger injury while sliding into second base at Morehead State. He missed the next 34 games due to the injury, returning for the Arkansas series and showing his impact on UK, offensively and defensively.

After returning from injury, Johnson batted .340 (16-for-47), despite having missed 34 consecutive games and not facing live pitching since Feb. 22.  During the final 14 games of the year, Johnson started 13 consecutive games to close 2011, belting seven doubles, two homers and 12 RBI. He drew nine walks and struck out only six times, totaling a .456 on-base percentage at the top of the UK lineup with three steals.

In his five-year career, Johnson batted .237 (42-for-177) in 78 games and 47 starts, seeing time at second and third base, shortstop, leftfield and rightfield. Johnson totaled 11 doubles, three homers and 23 RBI in his career, with 34 walks and 33 strikeouts in his career. Johnson stole 31-of-34 bases in his career, highlighted by 24 stolen bases as a reserve in 2010. As a senior, Johnson hit .333 (20-for-60) in 18 games and 17 starts, totaling seven doubles, two homers and 12 RBI, drawing 10 walks and striking out seven times, stealing four bags.

Among his career highlights are a leadoff homer to open UK’s midweek win over Indiana in 2011 and his first career homer against Monmouth in San Diego, Calif., in 2010. Johnson led off the bottom of the ninth inning of UK’s game with Monmouth, having replaced UK All-America second baseman Chris Bisson after the star had broken his nose after getting hit by a pitch. Johnson worked a 10-pitch at bat before belting his first career homer to erase a one-run Monmouth lead, with UK later getting a walk-off RBI from Braden Kapteyn for the seven-run comeback win.