It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Brian Johnson. First round picks during their first full season after being selected usually get a lot of hype. The hype isn’t always positive, of course. Sometimes, it’s negative with prospect analysts and beat writers wondering if the team simply misjudged a player’s ability to make the transition from amateur status to the pros. (See Jason Place, Kolbrin Vitek) Other times, the hype is over-the-top to the point where unfair expectations can be placed on a prospect right out of the gate. Being Red Sox fans, we’ve seen that kind of hype more times than we can count. Rarely, though, is the hype virtually non-existent.*
* Side note: Brian Johnson has been talked about so little on Fire Brand that he doesn’t even have a “tag” in our system. Do we, however, have one for fellow 2012 first round pick, Deven Marrero and Pat Light. Go figure.
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised Johnson is flying under the radar. He’s never been the kind of pitcher to overpower hitters or impress scouts with his stuff. Instead, he’s mature, polished, and efficient. While those adjectives typically describe pitching prospects with low ceilings, Johnson’s is coupled with a floor that’s pretty high. With this in mind, coupled with the idea he could move quickly through the farm system, the Red Sox chose him with their second pick of the first round.*
* Special thanks to Ruben Amaro for being so impatient as to sign Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year contract under the old compensation rules merely days before the current Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed. Your first round pick, plus the additional compensation pick was very much appreciated.
Johnson flying under the radar isn’t completely a function of his undervalued skill set. One of the biggest reasons has been nagging injuries. Like most college tested draft picks, he started off his pro career pitching in short-season A-ball with the Lowell Spinners. Things were going pretty well until a line drive to his face during the Fenway Future’s game; thereby, abruptly ending his first pro season after pitching only after 5-2/3 innings.
Initially, most talent evaluators anticipated Johnson starting out his 2013 season with high-A Salem, but his shortened stint with Lowell in 2012 caused the Red Sox to re-evaluate his development plan. Instead, he was placed in low-A ball with the Greenville Drive to start. Given his advanced skill set, he wasn’t expected to stay there long before being promoted. Again, things didn’t go quite as planned for the left-hander. Early season inconsistency combined with a shoulder injury that kept him out of action for six weeks, slowed his development. Upon returning from injury in mid-July, Johnson looked like a completely different pitcher. In his final 31 innings with Greenville, Johnson posted a 1.45 ERA with a 30/11 K/BB ratio. While his .145 BABIP against indicates that he benefited from some degree of luck, much of it looks like the performance of an advanced pitcher with a clean bill of health dominating his competition. He was promoted to Salem prior to his start on Saturday,and performed quite well in his first taste of the Carolina League.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect surrounding Brian Johnson is the situation in which he was drafted. When the 2012 draft occurred last June, the Red Sox organization was a mess. Reeling off of the a brutal collapse in September 2011, the 2012 club stumbled out of the gate under the weight of inconsistency and a bloated, inflexible payroll. The farm system, ripe with potential, hadn’t fully bloomed. The starting pitching, especially, was a mess.
Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and John Lackey were all a part of the ill-fated “fried chicken and beer” crew. Their dedication to the team and their ability to perform were consistently being called into question. Making matters worse, Lackey would be forced to miss the entire 2012 season after having Tommy John surgery. Clay Buchholz was an even bigger question mark as he was attempting to return from a fractured vertebrae injury that kept him out for the final three months of the season. The rotation was filled out with Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard, neither of whom had any real experience as starting pitchers in the majors.
In the minors, the situation offered little hope. High hopes were held out for 2011 first round picks, Matt Barnes and Henry Owens. Barnes bolted out of the gate, and was quickly promoted to Salem. Owens, a high school draftee, struggled with his command (as many young left-handed power pitchers do); thereby, making him look like more a long term project. Drake Britton and Stolmy Pimental, once top prospects in the system, were coming off of campaigns that could be best described as forgettable. While 2010 draft pick, Brandon Workman, looked solid, he wasn’t particularly spectacular either. Much was expected out of 2010 first round pick, Anthony Ranaudo, during his first stint in double-A, but he fell flat on his face. Injuries and terrible command were suddenly calling his prospect status into question.
In need of a pitching prospect who was polished and could quickly move through the system, enter Brian Johnson.
Flashing forward another 14 months, Beckett’s in L.A., Bard’s returned to the bullpen (and double-A), Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa are in the fold (thanks, Ned Colletti!), and every one of the above named pitching prospects (save for Pimental, who was traded away) have taken huge steps forward. The landscape of starting pitching has changed so much during that time, it’s easy to see why Johnson’s being temporarily overlooked. Johnson currently sits at number eight on the pitching prospect depth chart. While that’s nothing at which to sneeze, those along the fringe of the Red Sox prospect world are focused on those closest to the majors–not someone who just reached high-A. That certainly doesn’t delegitimize his performance to date, but it puts his silent hype into perspective.
It also makes me wonder if the Red Sox would have taken him at all had the pitching looked like it does now, organizationally. Playing “what if” games can be fun, but when you have a solid pitching prospect like Brian Johnson toiling in your ranks, waiting to bust out, it seems a little foolish to put much stock into those musings.