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On Baseball

Brian Johnson’s departure sprouts from an extended Red Sox failure

Brian Johnson made 26 starts for the Red Sox across four seasons. Amazingly, for a homegrown Red Sox prospect the last two decades, that's a high number.
Brian Johnson made 26 starts for the Red Sox across four seasons. Amazingly, for a homegrown Red Sox prospect the last two decades, that's a high number.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Typically, it is not a question of whether a draft will come with regrets, but instead what the magnitude of those regrets will be. But even with that caveat, the 2012 draft represents a particularly disappointing one for the Red Sox, a notion that received a final reminder with the news on Monday that lefthander Brian Johnson had requested and been granted his release.

In 2012, the Sox were armed with three of the first 37 picks. They strongly considered Stephen Piscotty, Mitch Haniger, and Matt Olson — all now difference-making position players.

A bit further down in the draft, the Sox also considered using their sizable bonus pool on an immensely talented high school pitcher, but the team ultimately felt that slight righty Walker Buehler was too physically underdeveloped to justify a huge outlay before he went to Vanderbilt, where he developed into a 2015 first-rounder.

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Instead, the Sox selected shortstop Deven Marrero and pitchers Johnson and Pat Light with their three top picks, and made its higher-risk outlay on high school pitcher Ty Buttrey in the fourth round. The team received some payoff from each of them — Johnson as a contributor, and Marrero (Josh Taylor in 2018), Light (Fernando Abad in 2017), and Buttrey (Ian Kinsler in 2018) as modest trade chips.

Even so, Johnson’s departure offered the Red Sox yet another unwanted reminder of the value of starting pitching depth and the cost of the inability to develop it. Marooned at the team’s alternate training site in Pawtucket, Johnson concluded that he’d been buried on the depth chart. It’s hard to argue the point, thus explaining why the Red Sox granted the request.

“He just felt like he wanted an opportunity. Sometimes you need to go to other places to have a better opportunity, so he asked for his release,” explained Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke. “Although we would like to have him here for depth, that’s a decision that Brian wanted.”

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Though he’d thrown well in the initial spring training and in the team’s July training camp, the writing had been on the wall for Johnson for some time. He’d been bypassed as a depth option in the team’s eyes by fellow lefthanded starter Kyle Hart, who was added to the 40-man roster this winter as Johnson was outrighted off of it.

Johnson cleared waivers and thus remained in the organization. But even as injuries to Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez, and the trade of David Price, created a starting pitching carousel, the Red Sox repeatedly gave opportunities to other pitchers. That wasn’t about to change. According to multiple team sources, while the team has yet to announce a starter for Thursday’s game, Johnson wasn’t a consideration.

Thus ends the Red Sox tenure of a pitcher who entered the organization to considerable hype, and was viewed in 2014-15 as one of the best bets in the minors to emerge as a big-league starter. But a dizzying array of physical woes, as well as struggles with anxiety and depression, hindered his career.

That Johnson overcame those challenges to emerge as an important contributor in the 2018 championship season — Alex Cora often called him one of the team’s MVPs for his do-everything role on the pitching staff — served as a testament to his talent and determination. That said, he never forged a lasting spot in the big league rotation, and while his Red Sox career featured some memorable moments, he concluded it with a 7-9 record and 4.74 ERA in 171 innings.

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Johnson didn’t make the sustained impact once envisioned for him. All the same, he’s the only Red Sox draftee since 2007 to make at least 20 big league starts. The modesty of that bar — and the inability of so many to exceed it — helps explain the uncomfortable position of the 2020 Red Sox.

Leaks in homegrown starting pitching pipelines can be patched for a time. The 2016 Cubs, 2017 Astros, and 2018 Red Sox all won titles with heavily imported rotations. But when short-term rotation solutions acquired at great cost in free agency or trade falter due to injury or performance declines, a team’s depth — or lack thereof — becomes painfully exposed. And in 2020, the absence of Johnson or any other homegrown starter as an option of first resort has left the Sox in an ongoing scramble.

In Pawtucket, there have been glimmers of hope. Hart’s rise from a 19th round selection to the cusp of a big league opportunity represents a potential success story. Meanwhile, righthander Bryan Mata and lefthander Jay Groome have shown eye-opening potential as potential mid-rotation starters while working in Pawtucket.

But those pitchers remain unproven prospects. And until the Red Sox prove they can help them take the next step and solidify their status as big league rotation members, it’s hard to avoid skepticism about the organization’s ability to do so.

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The Red Sox acknowledge that they need more than what they have.

“When you look under the hood, I think there is more reason for optimism than the quick, public takes,” Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said of his team’s pitching pipeline. “But there’s no question we can stand to be a lot deeper. I think there’s both players in the system and things being done in the system behind the scenes that are going to yield good results in the future. . . . [But] you don’t ever want to rest until you have a prospect in every single rotation spot and relief spot up and down your system. Until you’re at that point, you’re never really satisfied.”

Johnson’s departure offers a reminder of how little reason the Red Sox have for satisfaction right now.


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.