Triple-A Pawtucket: Brian Johnson, LHP
Brian Johnson has had some uncharacteristic struggles in 2016. He was known for his control if nothing else during his minor-league career, but he's walked nearly as many batters as he's struck out this spring, and hasn't struck out nearly enough hitters in the process. At first, the safe assumption -- assumption though it was -- was that something could still be wrong with him from 2015's elbow injury, but it very well might not be a physical malady at all. Johnson is now on the temporary inactive list so he can seek out treatment for anxiety, and we should be happy that we're living in a time where his team is supportive of this instead of telling him to get back out there and pitch.
Now, we don't know if Johnson's anxiety and his struggles are actually related -- that's still, at most, an assumption just like the elbow -- so let's not speculate too much on this point, either, and let's absolutely not use the tired "Can't handle Boston!" reactions that I've regrettably already seen floating around Twitter. Johnson hasn't said there is a connection between his performance and his anxiety, and maybe we'll learn down the line for sure that these were separate issues for him. Plus, even if Johnson was throwing the best ball of his life, if he needed to deal with his anxiety, then he should do so -- and be allowed to do so. So, instead of focusing on what kind of pitcher Johnson will be when he finds the help he's looking for, let's just hope he finds the help he's looking for, and we'll think about the rest later.
Double-A Portland: Chandler Shepherd, RHP
If you're not paying attention to Chandler Shepherd yet, you should probably start to. He's one of the options the Red Sox might need to turn to should the results from Carson Smith's MRI be disastrous -- Shepherd is only in Double-A, but he throws strikes and misses bats, and would have been drafted much earlier and ranked much higher back in 2014's draft class were he not relegated to the pen thanks to injury. He's not on the 40-man roster, but if Smith is going to miss significant time and the Sox need an option that could be less temporary than Noe Ramirez and with more control than Pat Light, Shepherd could be that guy.
He still hasn't solved Triple-A since he hasn't reached that level, but don't be surprised if he gets the bump there once the waves of promotions begin. Shepherd threw just 14 innings for Low-A Greenville in 2015 before the Sox decided he belonged in High-A, and he's 20-plus frames with nearly 11 strikeouts per nine at the Double-A level to begin 2016. He still has some things to learn, and could probably use some refining in Double-A to learn said things, but if a hole opens up he's also maybe the best bet they have in the upper minors to be dropped into the big-league pen.
High-A Salem: Rafael Devers, 3B
Devers is nearly two months into his High-A career, and things are still not going well. He's drawing some walks, but that's about all he's doing, and his batting average is so low that even with the 11 percent walk rate his on-base percentage is all of .268. None of this is alarming, though: Devers is 19 years old and in High-A ball already. He's younger than basically every college player who will be drafted next month, except for maybe a junior college player amateur here or there. He still hasn't faced a single pitcher younger than he is. A huge part of his problem is his batting average on balls in play, which is maybe a teensy bit bad luck, but mostly is just Devers needing to figure out how to adjust so he can capitalize on what pitches are giving him instead of flailing at the wrong pitches.
Let's optimize the Red Sox lineup!
With the Sox on a historic pace offensively, there's no real need to shake things up in the batting order. But if we wanted to, what would be the best order for Boston's typical starting nine?
He's been so ahead of his level to this point that it's easy to be surprised by these struggles, but part of development as a prospect is failing. You thrive, you fail, you adapt, and you thrive once more. We're waiting around for Devers to adapt so he can get that key last part down, but this is the first time that a prospect known for being advanced for his age has struggled. It could take him some time to figure it out, so be patient.
Low-A Greenville: Roniel Raudes, RHP
Raudes is continuing to pitch well for a guy who is limited to be about 75 pitches per start given his youth and inexperience. He's reached five innings in five of his seven starts, has allowed one run or fewer in five outings, and has done this all without facing a hitter younger than his 18 years. There are some little issues cropping up that could turn out to be larger issues or nothing at all with time: Raudes is pitching much better out of the windup than stretch, and he's an extreme fly ball pitcher at a level where pitchers are rarely punished for that. He could figure out a few things on both accounts that keep these from being real problems, but they're both something to watch.
You'd like to see a few more strikeouts out of him at this stage, too, but that's nitpicking. He's 18 and striking out 3.8 times as many batters as he's walking, has given up just the one homer, and has more often than not made the most out of the pitches he's been allowed to throw. Raudes didn't get the fanfare of other international signings that happened around the same time -- and really, he shouldn't have given who some of those signings were -- but he's still worth paying attention to as one of the many low-level persons of interest the Sox have in the system.