FORT MYERS, Fla. — For the friends of Brian Johnson, it’s become absurd to the point of amusement. The lefthander’s professional career has represented a succession of unfortunately timed events and hardships that have prevented him from getting extended major league opportunities.
The litany of woes seems almost impossible to comprehend: a liner off the face in his 2012 pro debut; elbow discomfort that emerged just before his 2015 big league debut and prevented him from pitching later that year, when a two-month rotation audition was his for the taking; a carjacking in the offseason following that year; anxiety and depression that had him considering retirement in 2016; another liner off the head in early 2017.
While Johnson had experienced some big league success, he more often has spent time trying to work his way back to the mound while watching others get the opportunities that might have been his.
“It’s always a running joke, even with my buddies at home, that if anything bad is going to happen, it’s going to happen to me,” Johnson chuckled Tuesday afternoon, referencing the “Bad Luck Brian” Internet meme. “It’s along those lines.”
Yet this spring may represent a change of fortune. A pitcher who has been either sidelined or struggling is now healthy and pitching well in a spring where the Red Sox appear likely to open the year with two or possibly three starters (Eduardo Rodriguez, Steven Wright, perhaps Drew Pomeranz) on the disabled list. Johnson, meanwhile, is throwing well and likely to make the big league roster as a player who is out of minor league options, and throwing well.
On Tuesday, he took another step. In a minor league camp game against players who are mostly ticketed for the low levels, he faced 16 batters and allowed no runs, one hit, and no walks while striking out 10. Over 62 pitches, he threw 48 strikes while getting 13 swings and misses, with whiffs coming on his fastball, curveball, and changeup.
The ability to execute his pitch mix, sequences, and location over five innings suggested a pitcher who is in the later stages of preparation for a chance to contribute to the big league rotation. Johnson acknowledges a sense of possibility before him.
“For sure you can kind of sense the season coming along; it’s exciting,” said Johnson. “You see the writing on the wall. With a couple guys being down, you know you kind of sense it — this is the time to kind of seize the opportunity.”
The Red Sox want him to do just that. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said that, even with penciled-in rotation members expected to open the year on the DL (with anticipated April returns), the team is satisfied with the state of its rotation depth.
Even at a time when free agent starters (such as Alex Cobb) remain available, Dombrowski said the Sox don’t anticipate any additions. Johnson and Hector Velazquez represent a big reason for that.
“We’re comfortable,” Dombrowski said. “We’re talking short-term [disabled list stints]. You’re not going to sign somebody for an outing. An outing or two is really what we’re talking about. … We’re going to have six starters very soon after the start of the season. That’s what we anticipate.”
The idea of leaning on a pitcher like Johnson for rotation depth represents a potentially important development for a Red Sox team that has struggled to produce homegrown starters. Johnson, who went 2-0 with a 4.33 ERA in five fill-in starts last year, could represent part of a turnaround.
“We’re trying to develop our own starters,” said Dombrowski. “We think we can do that.
“Of course you always like to promote from within as much as you possibly can, but you’re not just giving positions to people. He did a nice job for us last year. We think he’s ready to contribute here.”
That outlook, in turn, bodes well for Johnson, a native of Florida who may have a chance to pitch in his home state against the Rays or Marlins in the first week of the season. For a pitcher who has already encountered a career’s worth of misfortune, the change is refreshing.
“It just kind of feels like the stars are aligning,” said Johnson. “I’m excited. Baseball is fun. That’s the biggest thing. At one point in time, it wasn’t fun. It was a drag coming to the field. I’m excited to come to the field every day.”
A step for Maddox
Righthander Austin Maddox, sidelined as a precaution early in the spring with soreness in the back of his shoulder, threw one inning against the minor leaguers, his first game activity of the spring. He threw nine pitches (seven fastballs, one changeup, one slider), eight for strikes, and struck out two. “It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” said Maddox. “I’ve been champing at the bit. I’m a competitor and I want to be out there and I want to help the team. It’s tough to sit back sometimes but obviously in the back of my mind I know it’s the right move. It’s not the time to push it. It’s too early. We have the whole season ahead of us.”
Sale on the hill
Lefthander Chris Sale is on tap to start against the Twins Wednesday, his second Grapefruit League contest of the spring. David Price, whose scheduled Grapefruit League debut last Saturday was canceled because of the threat of rain, is finally scheduled to pitch in a big league game Thursday against the Blue Jays. “I’m looking forward to it, for sure,” said Price. “This is the best I’ve felt in spring training on March  probably ever.” . . . Red Sox minor leaguers who were part of last year’s Greenville Drive — the Single A South Atlantic League champions — received their championship rings in a ceremony in Fort Myers Tuesday.
Holt holds on
Sunday represented a procedural checkpoint in the spring training calendar, the day by which teams could place players who are on the 40-man roster but with nonguaranteed contracts on unconditional release waivers while being responsible for just 30 days of termination pay. That group typically encompasses arbitration-eligible and pre-arbitration-eligible players.
Some scouts have been curious to see whether the Sox either cut Brock Holt — who is hitting .357/.438/.429 in six spring games but has been sidelined by a minor abdominal stiffness and on Sunday left a game after being hit above the elbow by a pitch — or option him to the minors. The curiosity stems from the fact that Holt will receive a $2.225 million salary if in the majors — at a time when the Sox have less expensive utility options (Deven Marrero and Tzu-Wei Lin).
However, the Sox did not put any of their players on release waivers Sunday. Any player on the 40-man roster who is released during the duration of spring training would now be entitled to 45 days of termination pay (approximately one-fourth of his salary).