Triple-A Pawtucket: Brian Johnson, LHP
Brian Johnson is known by the Red Sox fans who pay attention to the farm system, but he's not as beloved or anticipated as his teammates and fellow southpaws, Henry Owens and Eduardo Rodriguez. This isn't meant to be a criticism of Johnson, but that's a fair stance to have: Johnson's ceiling is maybe a mid-rotation arm, while that's more the middle ground projection for Owens and Rodriguez, who are the top two pitching prospects in the system. Johnson has value, though, and should have a big-league future worth imagining, so let's get to that.
Johnson's 2014 was notable, as he led the Eastern League in ERA at 1.75 over 118 innings, and did so after throwing just 37 total innings over seven starts for High-A Salem. Injuries are the only reason he wasn't in Double-A (and maybe even Triple-A) sooner, and not necessarily worrisome ones, either: he was hit by a line drive just a couple months after he was drafted in the first round back in 2012, and then he dealt with a minor shoulder issue in 2013 that has, mercifully, not reappeared since.
His 2014 helped make him the number 82 prospect in the game according to Baseball America, but other outlets haven't given him that level of recognition or attached that kind of promise just yet. If he thrives at Triple-A like he has at his previous stops, they'll likely come around, but it's also easy to see why they have not. Johnson doesn't have a plus pitch in his repertoire, nothing he can call a definitive out pitch. What he does have, however, is fantastic control, and command that has allowed him to strike out more hitters than you would expect him to with his stuff.
Photo credit: Stacy Revere/Getty Images
It's also worth remembering that Johnson doesn't need to be exactly as good as he was in the minors in order to be a productive member of the Red Sox in the future. His career ERA is 2.18 -- he has a whole lot of cushion protecting him from the eventual slap of reality he'll get when he hits the majors. He'll probably need most of that shielding, but if he "only" ends up a regular old major-league starter once the dust settles, that's a victory for Johnson and the Sox.
Double-A Portland: Justin Haley, RHP
Justin Haley has had something of a fascinating minor-league career to this point. He was drafted in the sixth round by Boston in the 2012 draft -- Ben Cherington's first as Red Sox general manager-- and was one of the few players from their first 10 picks that received something approaching full bonus value for his slot. He pitched 124 innings in his first full pro season for Low-A Greenville, succeeding at limiting hits while striking out a batter per inning, but he also walked over five batters per nine. That number could have been significantly worse, too: Haley handed out 37 free passes in his first 42-2/3 innings at the level, a walk rate of almost eight per nine.
Haley would walk 37 batters the rest of the season, in about twice as many innings: that's still too many walks, but around four per nine from a 22-year-old in their first full season is a whole lot more tolerable than, well, twice that number. He would follow this reversal up with a strong campaign for High-A Salem, where he posted a 2.82 ERA over 92 frames while striking out over three times as many batters as he walked. A late-season promotion to Portland saw similar success, though, with fewer whiffs in his six starts.
Now, he's set up for a full season at Double-A, which should give us an indication of Haley's future, at least to a degree. There is a chance he might be a starter in the majors despite his lack of a true out pitch, if only because, like Johnson (though without the control), he handles the four pitches he has well enough, and with some natural downward movement to his fastball thanks to his 6-foot-5 standing. It's also possible he's more a reliever or a swingman, but for a sixth-round pick with a $125,000 bonus, that wouldn't be so terrible, either.
High-A Salem: Tzu-Wei Lin, SS
Tzu-Wei Lin has yet to do much hitting in his travels through the Red Sox farm system. He began in the GCL, moved to short-season Lowell, spent his 2013 with Low-A Greenville, and now finds himself in High-A Salem: in that time, he's managed OPS of 659, 607, and 611. Numbers aren't everything in the minors, of course, but it's hard to ignore that Lin straight-up has not been able to hit.
He's still just 21, though, and offense isn't why the Red Sox signed him as an international free agent back in 2012. His glove is the real prize, so if he can figure out how to hit even a little bit, then he could have a big-league career. Whether it's as a backup or as a starter somewhere depends entirely on what his bat looks like by the time he's big-league ready. Given his youth, there is time between now and that moment, but it's going to be tough to notice where his bat is in its development since his glove keeps getting him pushed through the system in spite of the rest of the package.
Low-A Greenville: Javier Guerra, SS
Just one rung lower on the organizational ladder is another defense-first shortstop, except this one is only 19, and he's already hit a little better than Lin ever has. Guerra has the potential to be a plus defender at the position, and unless things change drastically by time he's ready for the majors, that's going to still be hugely valuable even if he can barely hit.
The important thing to keep in mind at this stage is that Guerra is still a very raw presence at the plate: his approach is unrefined, he's still very aggressive, and he lacks the power to back up that kind of aggressiveness. If he can figure out over time, as Jose Iglesias seems to, which pitches he should be attacking early so he can get his hits in when he gets the opportunity, he could be a little more than a quality glove. Guerra is probably years off from figuring that out, if he does at all, so for now, just enjoy a player who is almost exclusively made up of promise.