Red Sox moving left-handed pitcher Brian Johnson to bullpen
By Sean Penney
The Boston Red Sox are reportedly planning to convert left-handed pitcher Brian Johnson into a reliever for the 2018 season.
Middle relievers may not be at the top of the agenda this offseason but that doesn’t mean the Boston Red Sox don’t plan to address that need. Given the expectation that they will spend money on a bat this winter, the Red Sox would benefit from filling bullpen holes with cost-effective internal options.
One of those options could be Brian Johnson. The left-hander is expected to be converted into a reliever next season, according to WEEI’s Rob Bradford.
Johnson has battled injuries over the last few years that have prevented him from reaching his ceiling, yet he’s been effective when he’s been able to take a minor league mound. He’s 17-16 with a 3.18 ERA across three seasons at the Triple-A level.
Unfortunately, that success has never translated to the big leagues. He’s made six starts for the Red Sox since 2015, posting a 4.88 ERA.
Five of those starts came this year. While most of those appearances left a lot to be desired, Johnson gave a glimpse of what his ceiling could be with a dominant outing against the Seattle Mariners on May 27. He tossed a complete game shutout, allowing only five hits with no walks and he struck out eight.
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While it seems premature to give up on a 26-year old with this type of upside, Boston may have no choice. Johnson is out of minor league options, meaning he must make the Opening Day roster or else he’ll be designated for assignment. If he clears waivers he could be outrighted off the 40-man roster and sent to Triple-A Pawtucket, where he would continue to serve as starting rotation depth for the organization. However, the former first-round pick has flashed enough potential in his minor league career to assume another team would claim him.
Johnson’s limited time in the majors also provides a reason to believe he could thrive as a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen. It’s a minuscule sample size, but Johnson has held left-handed major league hitters to a .133 average and .267 OPS while getting torched by right-handed bats to the tune of a .295 average and .860 OPS.
The Red Sox could use another lefty in the bullpen with Fernando Abad potentially departing via free agency. Robby Scott is the only other lefty reliever we can count on to make the Opening Day roster. Robbie Ross could also rejoin the bullpen after missing most of 2017 with back surgery, although the Red Sox generally haven’t used him as a lefty specialist in the past.
Every bullpen needs a reliever who can lock down tough left-handed bats late in games. Scott is the only pitcher in the Red Sox bullpen who fits that criteria but Johnson could provide them with another option.
Filling a roster spot with Johnson’s near minimum salary rather than re-signing Abad or chasing another high-profile lefty reliever allows the Red Sox to allocate more funds to other areas. Boston is willing to exceed the luxury tax this year but they still have payroll limitations.
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Johnson’s future may still be as a starting pitcher but with no room in the Red Sox rotation entering the 2018 season, putting him in the bullpen is the only way to ensure they can keep him in the organization and get the most value out of him in the short term.