Welcome to BP Boston’s Roster Recap series! We continue to break down every player on Boston’s 40-man roster and many of the top prospects in order to provide a comprehensive overview of the roster’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what we can expect moving forward. There’s no better time than the offseason to review the best (there was some best!) and worst (there was a lot of worst!) of the past year in red and navy. You can see previous editions of Roster Recap here.
Brian Johnson has been rated among the Red Sox‘s top 10 prospects for the last couple of seasons. On most of this year’s lists the 25-year-old lefty occupies the sixth or seventh slot. Johnson is a member of the group of homegrown, young pitchers – with Henry Owens and Matt Barnes – who are expected to provide the pitching depth the Red Sox will certainly need as they battle for AL East crown in 2016.
Johnson will compete for a spot in the big league rotation this Spring, but it is more than likely that he starts the year in Pawtucket. In some ways, he’s ready for a shot in the majors, but there is simply no room for him in Boston right now. The rough news for Johnson is that he is not likely to be the next man up if an opening should emerge in the big league rotation. Owens, Roenis Elias, and typically forgotten man Steven Wright are all in this same situation, and might rank higher than Johnson on the depth chart. Johnson is part of a group that is on the outside looking in at the moment, and while this sort of depth is great for the organization, it may not bode well for Johnson’s future with the Red Sox.
What Went Right in 2015
This part is fairly straight forward. The best thing about 2015 for Johnson was how well he performed during his time in Pawtucket. In 96.0 innings he posted a 3.19 RA9 (3.22 FIP), with a nearly 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Johnson was murder on left-handed hitters, holding them to a .256 OBP, but didn’t exactly struggle with righties, keeping them to a .282 OBP. All in all, Johnson handled the Triple-A level well and seemed ready for a promotion to a Red Sox staff that struggled mightily to begin the year.
He got the call to the big leagues on July 11, but did not get the chance to start until July 21, when he made his debut in Houston. Perhaps because of the oddly long stretch of inactivity, the outing did not go very well. Johnson allowed four runs in 4.1 innings, with more walks (four) than strikeouts (three). Despite this, it gave Johnson his first opportunity against big league hitters. Although he made only this one start, Johnson at least got a taste of the differences between navigating a major league lineup and that of one with Triple-A hitters.
What Went Wrong in 2015
Despite his mid-summer call-up, health and Florida car thieves made 2015 difficult for Johnson. Following that first outing against the Astros, Johnson made only two more appearances in 2015 – both for Pawtucket – because of an elbow injury. While elbow injuries are often followed by Tommy John surgery, Johnson did not end up going under the knife. He was instead diagnosed with a nerve-related issue that periodically left him with numbness in his left hand. This is generally good news, though there is some uncertainty regarding how to treat the injury.
With little improvement in his status by August, the Red Sox decided to shut down Johnson for the rest of the season. After a half-season of great pitching in the minor leagues and a major league debut under his belt, Johnson’s progress was halted, ultimately leaving his expectations for 2016 unclear.
Outlook for 2016 / MLB ETA
Johnson will compete for a spot at the back end of Boston’s rotation this spring, but is more likely to be called up if the team’s rotation is struck by injuries. He will need to demonstrate that his nerve issue is behind him, or that he can manage it over the course of a major league season and 150-plus innings on the mound. Most of his time will likely be spent in Pawtucket, where he will keep trying to showcase his big league credentials.
Johnson will probably see some time with Boston this season, but he could also be an intriguing piece in a potential trade. With all the depth the Red Sox have at starting pitcher, he could be dangled in a deal to improve the big league club in-season. Still, the more immediate concern is that Johnson resumes dominating hitters the way he did prior to his injury. If he continues that success, an opportunity in the majors will come calling eventually, whether with Boston or another team.
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