The Red Sox have a bunch of decisions that they’ll need to make over the next few weeks. This is not a new story, and it’s something that we talked about less than two weeks ago. Major-league rosters, of course, are constantly evolving and changing all around the league as the year goes on for a variety of reasons, and there is a constant stream of decisions that need to be made at any given time. That being said, it seems particularly busy for the Red Sox right now and the first choice has to be made within the next day or so. It hasn’t been very long since we last talked, but in my view things have changed. At the very least, my opinion has changed after getting more data points and talking to other people. There are a lot of ways the Red Sox can go with their roster, but the more I think about it the more I think Brian Johnson’s time in Boston could be coming to an end.
The initial domino that is going to fall will be Steven Wright returning to the roster. The knuckleballer is going to be back on Monday as his suspension comes to an end, and since he’s out of options the team either has to add him to the active roster or put him on waivers. They aren’t going to do the latter, so he will be added to the roster. That means, obviously, that someone has to go. My initial thought was that the team would ultimately lean towards keeping as much depth as possible and optioning Hector Velazquez, as he’s the only realistic cut who can be retained by the organization. Johnson is starting to make more sense, though.
For one thing, as our own Bryan Joiner and Jake Devereaux have pointed out to me a few times (I listed sometimes!), the team seems to trust Velazquez more than Johnson at this point in time. Granted, neither pitcher is a massive part of the bullpen plan right now, but when given the choice between one or the other in a high-leverage spot or an important long relief situation (i.e. not mop up duty in a blowout), Velazquez appears to get the call more often than not. It makes sense, given that he’s been better this year and proved himself to be capable in this role last year. Johnson, for all of his pedigree and the flashes he has shown, has still never really shown that he belongs. A lot of that was out of his control, of course, but with this kind of roster those considerations don’t matter as much. (It’s a similar situation to that of Blake Swihart, in a way.)
There’s also the fact that saving depth just doesn’t seem as important to this team for a couple of reasons. For one thing, they are contending now, and they are contending in what is expected to be a close year all season long. Wins at all points of the year count the same and will go towards the end-of-year result. With that in mind, it makes sense to keep the best roster on hand at all times. If they believe Velazquez makes the bullpen better than Johnson does, then they should keep the former even if not picking the latter means he’s almost certainly going to be on another roster.
On top of that, the depth he would provide can be found in other places on the roster. There’s an argument to be made that Johnson is a better option than all or most of the names I’m about to name, but it’s likely not by some significant margin. In terms of rotation depth, even without the former first round pick the Red Sox would have Wright, Velazquez, Jalen Beeks, Chandler Shepherd and Justin Haley. That’s a lot of capable back-end arms. From the left side in the bullpen, they can use Joe Kelly in a de facto lefty specialist role for now, and if they need a more traditional option they have guys like Bobby Poyner, Robby Scott, Beeks and Williams Jerez. In all honestly, Johnson’s best role right now is as a fifth starter for a team that can afford growing pains, but obviously that’s not going to happen with the Red Sox.
Whatever decision the Red Sox make — whether it be Johnson, Velazquez or even designating Heath Hembree for assignment (this would surprise me at this point) — it needs to be made by Monday. We’re so used to this organization opting to prioritize depth over everything, but they seem to be in a position to prioritize the quality of the roster right now and worry about potential consequences. That could leave Johnson as the odd man out, and even if he survives this round he could be right back on the chopping block when Tyler Thornburg (who also can shut down lefties when he’s at his best) returns. Whatever way you look at it, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Johnson’s time with the Red Sox may be coming to a close, and honestly that could be the best-case scenario for both the team and the player.