The Boston Red Sox roster is about to get several key members of the bullpen back. Steven Wright has just been activated to the roster, and Tyler Thornburg and Dustin Pedroia are right behind him. With the influx of all that talent, some of it has to go. Right now, one of the most likely candidates is left-handed pitcher Brian Johnson. Johnson is currently out of options, and the Sox should look to trade him, instead of outright releasing him. But what could the Red Sox get out of a Brian Johnson trade? Let’s take a dive into what Johnson brings, and what teams could see in the young lefty.
So what kind of player is Brian Johnson? After making his major league debut in 2015, Johnson made the Opening Day roster for the first time in his career in 2018, filling in for Drew Pomeranz in the rotation. Once the rotation got healthy, Johnson moved to the bullpen.
To put it bluntly, Johnson’s numbers have not been great this season. In 33 innings, Johnson owns a 6.63 ERA to go along with a .304/.360/.532 slash line. These traditional statistics do not do Johnson any favors, and the advanced metrics aren’t much nicer. While he’s allowing an unsustainably-high .357 BABIP, his FIP (fielding independent pitching) currently sits at 4.99. He’s allowing soft contact just 23.3% of the time, and opponents have generally been teeing off on him.
So if Johnson’s numbers are this bad, why would any team in their right mind trade for him? Well, when digging a little deeper into the data, there’s actually a reason for another team to believe in the potential of Brian Johnson.
While Johnson’s 2018 numbers have been ugly, almost all of the bad statistics come from his time as a reliever. Throughout his entire life, Johnson has always been a starting pitcher. This season is essentially the first time in his career that he’s ever been a reliever, and he’s had some difficulty adjusting.
Johnson started one game against the Miami Marlins and had a solid outing. In six innings, Johnson allowed just one run while striking out five and walking two. It wasn’t anything special, but it’s everything you could hope for out of a spot starter.
The advanced stats tell a similar narrative. Over half of the balls put into play were ground balls, which is obviously ideal. He only allowed hard contact 22.2% of the time and had a relatively normal .294 BABIP.
This isn’t to say Johnson is a great starter because of one game. One appearance isn’t enough to make any solid evaluation of Johnson as a player. Rather, this was to establish just how bad his relief appearances have been. He’s pitched 19 innings all season, and his six as a starter were pretty good, but his overall numbers are still terrible.
In order to evaluate Johnson as a starter, let’s take a look at his combined numbers from 2017 and 2018. While there’s still not much of a sample size, it’s all the information we have to make an assessment on the lefty’s potential.
Since 2017, Johnson has actually posted some pretty solid numbers as a starter. The former first-round selection has pitched 33 innings, allowing a 3.82 ERA and a respectable .279/.329/.471 slash line. At first glance, these are the numbers of a solid #4 or #5 arm in the rotation. On a bad team, he’d be a lesser #3.
The advanced metrics support the notion that Johnson could be a solid guy near the end of the rotation. While his 7.1 K/9 ratio isn’t that impressive, his 2.7 BB/9 shows that Johnson has solid command and rarely gives out free passes. Johnson also strands an impressive 85.9% of the batters that make it on base. While some people don’t see much value in that stat, it shows that Johnson pitches well when it matters most. Basically, giving up singles are fine, so long as that runner never comes home, and Johnson typically doesn’t let the runner get home.
This isn’t to say Johnson is a perfect late-rotation starter (his 4.85 FIP is concerning), but there’s certainly enough data out there to argue Johnson’s potential in the major leagues. If the Sox are selling Johnson (and they probably should be), they should be telling teams all about these stats. So, what could Boston possibly get in return for Johnson’s services?
On his own, Johnson probably wouldn’t sell for much. He’s never been a consistent major leaguer, and he doesn’t have any options left. Now age 27, there’s probably not much more room for him to grow.
That being said, if packaged with Blake Swihart or Jackie Bradley Jr., Johnson could probably earn a fairly solid return. It’s no secret that the Red Sox need help at the catcher position, and Swihart/Bradley and Johnson could go a long way to solving that problem.
The Miami Marlins are openly tanking, actively trying to be bad now so that they can be good in five years or so. While the Marlins traded most of their good players away, catcher J.T. Realmuto was left on the fledgling roster. He’d immediately become the best catcher on the roster and would help cure the bottom of the order woes. It may take more than just Swihart and Johnson to obtain his services, but probably not much more than that.
The Sox could go another route and try to rebuild their farm system. If they go this route, Johnson would likely fetch a mid- to a low-tier prospect who would be a few years away from contributing. However, if combined with Swihart or Bradley, they might be able to obtain a borderline Top-100 prospect.
Truthfully, Johnson would just be icing on the cake in an exchange like that. The prospect return would be highly dependent on how the mystery team in question valued Swihart and/or Bradley. However, having the ability to add a player like Johnson as a bonus in a trade is a great luxury to have. The Sox farm system isn’t nearly the force it once was, and Johnson could go a small way in helping to replenish the minor leagues.