Throughout spring training, many of the conversations regarding the Red Sox rotation have centered on the club's supposed lack of a bona-fide ace. There's good reason for this, of course. Last season's version of Clay Buchholz was a shell of the pitcher who dominated the American League in the first half of 2013. Wade Miley, Justin Masterson, and Joe Kelly are all decent bets to improve on their 2014 performances, but each has his fair share of question marks, and none of the trio truly has the type of arsenal or pedigree to carry a rotation.
Rick Porcello might just be the best bet to lead Boston's staff, especially if the 26-year-old keeps improving after a strong campaign last year. Still, even if your optimism runs high on Porcello's outlook for 2015, it's not a revelation to say that the Red Sox are unable to match the type of elite starting pitching the Nationals or Dodgers can boast.
Although the Red Sox are lacking in top-flight starters, they do have a strong contingent of potential rotation fill-ins down in Triple-A. Steven Wright appears to be the next man in line should Boston need a spot starter given manager John Farrell's comments this spring (and the knuckleballer's quietly solid performances for Pawtucket last season). Behind Wright sits Boston's trio of left-handed pitching prospects in the upper minors. Either Henry Owens or Eduardo Rodriguez has the brightest future among the club's young arms depending on whom you talk to. But Brian Johnson might just beat his more heralded counterparts to Fenway Park.
Johnson has turned an impressive 2014 campaign between High- and Double-A into a strong performance in the Grapefruit League this spring. A year ago, Johnson posted a 2.13 ERA over 143.2 minor league innings, pitching even better after a midsummer call-up to Portland. In 20 starts for the Sea Dogs, Johnson finished with an Eastern ?League-leading 1.75 ERA, allowing more than two earned runs in just two of those outings while striking out 99 batters against 32 walks.
The 24-year-old has shown that same consistency this spring, and his performances have certainly caught the eye of Farrell and Boston's coaching staff. Although Owens and Rodriguez have been sent back to minor league camp, Johnson is still with the big club and is slated to start Friday against the Twins. That Johnson has yet to be sent down is telling, especially considering he isn't on the team's 40-man roster and doesn't have to be for Rule 5 purposes until after this season.
While Owens and Rodriguez have received more attention (and are taking up 40-man spots), Johnson has quietly put himself in position to be called upon if the Red Sox need another starter beyond Wright to fill in. With Matt Barnes and Brandon Workman looking more certain for roles in the bullpen, a rotation -- or at least spot-start -- opportunity opening up for Johnson has only grown more likely.
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After all, the Red Sox always saw Johnson as someone who could potentially move quickly through the team's farm system, with injuries -- a liner to the head and a brief shoulder malady that seems to be well behind him -- being the only thing that has slowed him. Taken out of Florida with the 31st overall selection in the 2012 draft, Johnson's four-pitch repertoire stands out even if his ultimate ceiling remains that of a back-end or middle-of-the-rotation starter. At the same time, however, he is a safer bet than someone like Owens, possessing a high floor thanks to his stellar command that at least ensures he should find success in the majors even if he'll never be anything resembling an All-Star.
It's clear, given his performances in the upper minors last season and the impression he's made this spring, that Johnson doesn't need much more development time to provide the Red Sox with some dependable outings. He might not appear on top prospect lists like Owens and Rodriguez do, but Johnson is the type of pitcher that is always underrated by scouts, especially in the public realm. He doesn't possess high-end velocity, nor is there much room for physical growth. Yet Johnson already throws three average or better pitches and can command his fastball to either side of the plate, and his sequencing has stuck out in his minor-league performances as well. Johnson lacks a plus pitch, but he knows what to do with what he has.
Sometimes that type of arsenal ends up generating better results than anyone could have anticipated. At the very least, his success in concert with Owens' struggles this spring indicates that Johnson is ahead of his more highly touted counterpart at this juncture in their development.
Even if Johnson does get an opportunity with the Red Sox and runs with it, he shouldn't be expected to assuage any fears regarding the quality at the top of Boston's rotation. He isn't suddenly going to make all these Cole Hamels rumors go away, but he could help the Red Sox win games, in turn putting them in a position to be more aggressive in pursuing a top starter via trade. Dealing a package of young talent to help solidify the club's rotation in April is a riskier proposition than doing so in July, with playoff contention in sight and more starters available on the market.
A starter like Johnson can help the Red Sox get to just such a point. There are already whispers that Kelly could begin the season on the DL, and even if Wright is the next man up, it only takes one more injury in the rotation for Boston to be in need of Johnson's services. Considering how improved the Red Sox offense should be in 2015, someone like Johnson, who can at least provide stability and consistency, could be a valuable piece in what should be a tight AL East race.
It's important to keep our expectations tempered and resist any notion that Johnson can put up the same type of numbers in a Red Sox uniform that he has in the upper minors. At the same time, imagining Johnson giving the Red Sox a few solid outings at some point this season isn't an unrealistic scenario either, and its value should not be discounted.