May 24, 2014; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox helmet lays in the dugout against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Where does Brian Johnson rank among Red Sox pitching prospects?

The Red Sox have a wealth of pitching prospects that, while without impact potential, have a solid chance to become Major League starters. Brian Johnson is right there in the mix but there’s one twist: Johnson has been the best pitcher in Boston’s organization this season.

Johnson has been absolutely phenomenal this season and his success could force Boston’s hand before too long. He started five games in High-A Salem to start the year, showing a 3.86 ERA and a 33:7 K:BB ratio in 25.2 innings but has been far better after an early-season promotion to Double-A Portland. In 17 starts with the Sea Dogs, Johnson has dominated the competition, posting a ridiculous 1.89 ERA complemented by 7.5 K/9 and a stingy 2.5 BB/9 in exactly 100 innings. And while Johnson has been excellent all year for the Sea Dogs, he has been even better over a recent stretch. In his last 5 starts, Johnson has allowed 2 earned runs in 35.1 innings, good for an ERA of… wait for it… 0.51!

Of course, statistics are never a great way to measure the potential of a prospect but it’s great to see Johnson pitching with such aplomb in the Eastern League. Given Boston’s depth, however, it may be a little while until Johnson even gets a shot in Boston (for a reference point, the Red Sox’ top pitching prospect Henry Owens only just found a home in Pawtucket after dominating in Portland for over a year). If he keeps succeeding like this, though, it’s worth wondering where Johnson slots in among Red Sox pitching prospects.

Obviously, he ranks behind Owens, who is quite possibly the best left-handed pitching prospect in the entire Minor Leagues, but there’s an argument to be made that he’s the second-best pitching prospect in Boston’s system. Let’s take a look at the arms that have been ranked ahead of him throughout his career.

  • Allen Webster has dominant stuff but his control issues may prohibit him from ever succeeding as a Major League starting pitcher.
  • Anthony Ranaudo has had a lot of success in the top levels of the minors but, like Webster, he has struggled with his control and he only really has two good pitches.
  • Matt Barnes has a great fastball but his other pitches have not played well in the upper minors and he has had two consecutive disappointing seasons.

While Johnson may not have the star potential of any of those pitchers, he also has fewer question marks than any of them. Command has been his calling card ever since his time at the University of Florida and walks have never been a problem for the 23 year old. And while none of his pitches really stand out, his fastball, change, and curve all have potential to be above-average pitches at the Major League level. While it’s easy to imagine any of Webster, Ranaudo, and Barnes having to transition to the bullpen in the coming seasons, Johnson is a relatively safe pitcher and should develop into a back-of-rotation starter before too long.

At this point, the issue is simply finding him a place in Pawtucket, not to mention Boston. There has been talk of the Red Sox clearing out some of their depth by packaging some of their pitchers in a trade for either a frontline starter or a power bat this offseason. However, if that doesn’t happen then Johnson will likely be forced to start the season in Portland even though he has clearly proven himself at the level. Johnson needs a chance to prove himself at the next level and hopefully he’ll get that chance in the Red Sox organization; after all, he has a better chance to succeed than anybody except Owens at this point.

 

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