Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Brian Johnson.
The Question: Will the versatility Brian Johnson brings to the table prove enough to keep him off the chopping block?
In today’s ever-evolving baseball world, versatility is becoming more and more important with each passing year. As benches become shorter and specialized roles become more important, the need for players who can fill multiple roles to balance the scales become more important. It’s obviously a lot easier said than done finding these players, though we do see teams grooming their own super-utility guys more often in modern times. Generally speaking, this phenomenon is associated with position players. It’s used to talk about the importance of players that can play multiple positions. Brock Holt has, of course, been a great example of this for the Red Sox over the last few years. Nationally, Ben Zobrist is probably the most famous and Marwin González has made a name for himself over the last few years. The latter is currently a free agent, and it will be interesting to see whenever he signs what the market is for his kind of versatility.
But, I digress. Versatility may be most often associated with position players, but that doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent for pitchers. This is certainly not the first time it’s been discussed on this website, but it’s worth mentioning again. There is plenty of value in being able to have a pitcher who is comfortable as both a reliever and a starter. Obviously, this particular post is about Brian Johnson, and he fits this description to a T. There’s an argument to be made he is the best-suited for this role on the roster, though it’s not a given. Still, his ability to migrate in and out of different roles seamlessly last year was an underrated point of value for perhaps the best baseball team of the last 20 years. Granted, Johnson was far from a superstar and certainly had his bumps in the road, but he was rarely a disaster. Simply avoiding disaster while constantly changing your job is a lot easier said than done. As we look ahead to 2019, however, is that enough to keep him on the roster?
Versatility as a pitcher is one of those things that doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal, but it does take a certain attitude. We hear so often that many relievers pitch better when they know their role, which is the biggest reason we haven’t seen the game move completely away from true closers and just generally rigid jobs in their bullpens. Being a reliever is a strange job where you only have to pitch roughly once every three games, so being able to have some sense of when you are going to pitch. Filling the sort of back-and-forth we’re talking about today means your role is changing at any given moment, and not everyone is equipped to handle that in stride. There’s also the simple fact that you need to have some endurance in your arm to make 10-15 starts in a season and the durability to go from starting every five days to potentially throwing an inning or two in back-to-back games.
Johnson checks all of those boxes, but that’s not to say there are issues that could potentially push him off the roster. Most notably and most obviously is simply that the southpaw doesn’t provide that much upside. There’s some stability in his game, but he’s also the kind of pitcher that has a thin margin for error. Johnson has been fine as a reliever and a little below-average as a starter, but he does so by being roughly average across the board. His stuff isn’t overpowering and his command isn’t picture-perfect. It works as it is, but even a slight step back in either area is going to result in disastrous results.
The bigger issue right now is that the lefty is out of minor-league options. The Red Sox don’t have a lot of high-end relievers on their roster, but they have a ton of interesting names that are pushing for roster spots. Guys like Travis Lakins, Durbin Feltman, Colten Brewer, Bobby Poyner, Josh Taylor and Darwinzon Hernandez, among others, may not have a spot on Opening Day but they will have a chance to make a name for themselves in camp and make a push for a roster spot as the season moves on.
Injuries will help make room for anyone who steps up, but someone may need to go to make room if any of those pitchers forces the issue. One would think Johnson’s versatility as a pitcher would give him an edge over other middling out-of-option relievers like Tyler Thornburg, Heath Hembree and Brandon Workman, but the Red Sox do have other potential swingmen on the roster. Steven Wright is certainly the one the organization has the most confident in, though with his knee injury it’s hard to imagine them relying entirely on him to stay healthy. Still, even after Wright they have Hector Velazquez — who also spent all of 2018 in the majors — Chandler Shepherd, Mike Shawaryn, Marcus Walden and Erasmo Ramirez. Right now, that list doesn’t seem too enticing but any of those guys have the potential to show something in camp.
At the end of the day, Johnson has pitched well enough in multiple roles for the Red Sox to almost certainly stick around for Opening Day. He was, in fact, part of my Opening Day roster prediction. This is more likely when you consider Wright’s aforementioned injury and the team’s plan to roll with a six-man rotation right off the bat. This question has real potential to come up again as the season moves on, though. If Johnson shows any signs of slippage and other relievers start to knock on the door, the lefty might end up losing his spot. Johnson’s versatility isn’t to be taken for granted, but it can only carry him so far.