December 25, 2015 at 7:00 AM
This week, we recap the next three players in the season-end Top 40, going from 10 to 8. All entries in this year's Top 40 Season in Review series can be found here.
#8 Brian Johnson, LHP
2015 Team: Pawtucket Red Sox, Boston Red Sox
Final Stats: 96 IP, 2.53 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 90 K, 32 BB (minors only)
Peak Ranking: 4 (August)
2015 Season in Review: Brian Johnson's ascent through the Red Sox system reached its apex when the former first-round pick made his major league debut on July 21. While it was a tremendous accomplishment for the left-hander, one that was well earned following a tremendous start to the year, it also represented a turning point in his year. After making that debut following a long layoff, Johnson made only two more starts before being shut down for the season with an elbow injury.
Johnson had gotten a brief taste of Triple-A in 2014 with a single start in the postseason, which followed a stellar year split between High-A Salem and Double-A Portland. Ticketed for the PawSox again out of Spring Training, he tore out of the gate with only two earned runs allowed in his four April starts, striking out 24 and surrendering only 12 hits in 21 innings. The former Florida Gator kept rolling from there, allowing one or fewer runs in 10 of his first 14 appearances. With a 2.57 ERA and on his way to a slot on the International League All-Star squad, Johnson’s season began to wobble around midseason. On June 29, he left his start in the second game of a double-header after a five-pitch walk due to an illness. He bounced back on July 6 with a solid outing against Syracuse, allowing two runs on five hits in five innings, and it was announced later that week that the Red Sox would purchase Johnson’s contract to supplement an injury-depleted major league staff.
On July 11, the Red Sox officially selected Johnson from the PawSox to take the roster spot of the disabled-list-bound Clay Buchholz. However, because of the All-Star game, Johnson did not see game action for 10 days. On the 21st, he drew the tough starting assignment against the American League West-leading Houston Astros having thrown only five innings in the previous 26 days. Houston got off to a quick start with a walk, stolen base, single, and sacrifice fly before Johnson recorded his first out. However, he settled in with scoreless frames in the second, third, and fourth, highlighted by striking out the side in the third inning. The Astros reached Johnson again in the fifth for three runs on two hits and a walk, knocking the lefty out after 4 1/3.
Optioned back to the PawSox after his spot start, Johnson returned with a strong start in his first game back but left the following outing after four innings when he felt discomfort in his left elbow. A pair of MRI exams showed that there was no structural damage to his UCL and therefore not a situation where Tommy John surgery was necessary. With the major league club out of contention, the team took a cautious approach and shut Johnson down for the season. He resumed a throwing schedule in early October with the plan to have a normal offseason to ramp up for 2016. - James Dunne
Johnson has a strong frame throughout, listed at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, with an easy, compact delivery that he repeats consistently. Johnson fills up the strike zone with a four-pitch mix of a fastball, a curveball, a slider/cutter and a changeup. He is masterful at changing speeds and throwing both breaking balls and changeups with confidence, which keeps hitters guessing and off of his pedestrian fastball, which generally sits around 88-92 mph. Despite a lack of velocity, he has above-average command of the fastball and throws his cutter off of the fastball at a lower velocity, disrupting hitters' timing and making Johnson tough to square up on.
Overall, Johnson features four average-grade pitches with an above-average command and control profile that will allow him to have success and pitch towards the back end of a starting rotation for many years to come. Despite lacking a legitimate swing-miss pitch to miss bats, Johnson has great pitchability and understanding of sequencing and changing speeds to disrupt hitters timing that should translate well at the next level. Johnson and Henry Owens should serve as the two immediate depth options at Triple-A to fill in the moment a need should arise. - Chaz Fiorino
Photo Credit: Kelly O'Connor