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Down year doesn't derail White Sox hopes for Johnson

Young righty faltered after entering 2014 in rotation, but club hoping for rebound campaign
MLB.com @scottmerkin

CHICAGO -- The White Sox entered the 2014 season with starting rotation questions, but Erik Johnson didn't appear to be a major one.

Yes, the right-hander was a rookie with just five starts of big league experience on his resume from a September 2013 callup. But the quick ascension made by the second-round pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft from Double-A Birmingham to the White Sox two seasons ago gave the team high hopes for one of its top-rated prospects.

CHICAGO -- The White Sox entered the 2014 season with starting rotation questions, but Erik Johnson didn't appear to be a major one.

Yes, the right-hander was a rookie with just five starts of big league experience on his resume from a September 2013 callup. But the quick ascension made by the second-round pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft from Double-A Birmingham to the White Sox two seasons ago gave the team high hopes for one of its top-rated prospects.

Johnson was penciled into the four-spot of the 2014 starting five, but his effort almost immediately didn't look anything like what the White Sox envisioned. Johnson made it through five starts with a 6.46 ERA before being moved back to Triple-A Charlotte, where his ERA checked in at 6.73 over 20 starts.

So where do these pronounced struggles leave Johnson moving into '15 and beyond? Down, but not out in the mind of the organization.

"Because of the year and because of the performance, you don't pencil him in for a spot [for '15], whereas a year ago at this time, we talked about how we could break camp with this guy if things go well, as they did for a good portion of the spring," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. "He's still on the radar screen. Absolutely.

"If he comes to camp looking more like the kid he did before, he can force himself into the conversation. One thing we haven't been shy about is giving guys opportunities when they deserve it, regardless of what had happened in the past. He's still a very solid prospect and we are glad to have him."

Even as far back as last spring, scouts noticed that Johnson's velocity didn't seem the same. Fangraphs backs up this assertion, with his fastball dropping from 92 mph in 2013 to 89.6 in '14. Compensating for some sort of injury could dictate that drop, with Johnson's Charlotte season being shut down early due to shoulder fatigue.

But the White Sox and Johnson said there were no physical problems, and the organization confirmed that the right-hander now feels good and is ready to go in preparation for the '15 campaign. So if not a physical cause, then the mental burden caused by high-profile failure jumps to the forefront.

Hahn has mentioned on a few occasions the stories of Joe Crede and Aaron Rowand, who came to the White Sox as highly touted prospects but had to return to the Minors after big league failure -- before returning to find great success. The hope is that Johnson follows that same path.

"He's just a kid who again is young and has a great deal of talent and upside and had a lousy year. It happens sometimes," Hahn said. "We talked when we started this process 15 or 18 months ago that development is not linear. There will be guys who come up here and hit the ground running and have success and hopefully never look back. And there will be others ... they have to go back and make further refinements and then come back and have great Major League careers."

"Listen, he had a tough year, a bad year. I'm hoping that he clears his head, rebounds and comes back with a fire," White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said. "I think when you struggle that way, it becomes mental. You lose confidence, and it means a lot of stuff: aggressiveness, fight, all those things."

The velocity drop for Johnson doesn't seem to worry Cooper, who again pointed to the confidence behind the stuff as his most important factor. The White Sox enter the upcoming campaign with Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and John Danks currently set in the rotation, Hector Noesi holding an early edge at No. 4 and Carlos Rodon or a yet-to-be-made acquisition filling out the starters.

Starting the season in the Minors doesn't mean the White Sox are writing off Johnson. It's an opportunity for him to prove that 2014 stands as past history.

"That's the biggest thing for him regardless of anything else. He wants to get back to really and truly being in the mix at the Major League level," White Sox Minor League field coordinator Kirk Champion said. "I'm sure some time off has helped him.

"As he starts to work back toward next season, hopefully he can regain the form he had a year ago where he was a guy we were hoping to count on. Maybe it's a bump on the road for him and he gets right back this winter and gets himself straightened up and gets back to where he once was."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin.

Chicago White Sox, Erik Johnson