Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Brian Johnson.
The Question: In which role, and on what team, is Brian Johnson most likely to spend 2018?
If it seems like Brian Johnson has been around forever despite still maintaining his prospect status heading into the 2018 season, it’s because he sort of has been. The lefty is about to start his age-27 season and he first appeared in the big leagues back in 2015. He’s really been on the radar in the organization since the summer of 2012 when the team selected him out of the University of Florida with a first-round selection. Since then, Johnson has suffered unlucky injuries and has just generally gone through a string of bad luck. It’s hard not to root for the guy who by all accounts is a great teammate and someone who has the skills to succeed in the majors if things start to break correctly. Now, after all this time, the Red Sox and Johnson have reached the crossroads of a player without minor-league options, and it’s this distinction that leads to the biggest question surrounding the southpaw heading into spring training.
Being without minor-league options of course means that Johnson cannot be sent down to Pawtucket without first being exposed to waivers, and he’d certainly be claimed by someone in that scenario. Because of this, the Red Sox have a decision to make. At some point over the next couple of months, they need to either find a spot on the roster for Johnson, find an attractive trade package involving the lefty, or simply cut him loose. The early indications, unsurprisingly, are that they would like to keep the lefty — though there have been some reports of trade interest around the league — and to do so he’d likely have to pitch out of the bullpen. This makes the most sense, particularly at this moment, as they don’t want teams to think they’re desperate to trade him and there isn’t room in their rotation at the moment. Of course, injuries in camp could certainly change things dramatically. If the roster stays relatively healthy, though, and a bullpen role is the only one open at the start of the year, is that really the best use for Johnson?
As I said above, we’ve known Johnson as a player for quite some time, and despite his relative lack of major-league experience the book is essentially out. He’s never going to reach a huge peak, but the former Gator is among the safest prospects in recent memory and uses wildly impressive pitchability and baseball IQ to mask his average stuff. That is a valuable profile and one that could fit in the back of many rotations around the league, but it also isn’t one that is likely to play up in shorter stints. Really, Johnson’s best role in a bullpen would be in long relief, and that’s not really a pitcher you want to be using super often.
If Johnson is pitching out of the bullpen, it is certainly just as a way to keep him on the roster in the (likely) event that they team will need rotation depth. Remember, this is a rotation with injury risks at just about every spot along with Steven Wright, who could still be suspended by the league for a domestic dispute earlier in the winter. They will need rotation depth, and Johnson is enviable depth. However, he also may not be the top option available to the team. While the lefty has certainly earned a longer shot in the majors, Hector Velazquez was also impressive in 2017. Based purely on merit, one could certainly make the argument that the former Mexican League standout should rank higher on the depth chart. Roster decisions, particularly those made early in the year, are generally made with depth preservation in mind, but depending on the spring training performances of Johnson and Velazquez along with the likelihood of a tight division race with the Yankees, the Red Sox may prioritize getting the best pitcher in the rotation over depth. And if Velazquez did end up getting a shot as a starter before Johnson, is it still worth keeping a pitcher of his skillset in the bullpen rather than using him as trade bait?
Ultimately, Johnson is sort of in no-man’s land right now as a potentially serviceable back-of-the-rotation arm who has earned a shot but has the unfortunate reality of playing for a team with plenty of rotation depth. The plan right now is to pitch Johnson out of the bullpen to start the year despite that seemingly not being the best use of his skills. Of course, these plans could change, particularly if someone like Tony Watson was added to the roster in the next couple of weeks. The Red Sox don’t need to make this decision right now, and things can and will change between now and Opening Day. What is clear is that Johnson is finally going to get an extended chance in the majors. It’s a deserved accomplishment for the lefty, but we’ll have to wait to find out what role that chance will come in, and whether or not it will come while wearing a Red Sox uniform.