Johnson is no stranger to adversity

An NRI, lefty has versatility that could make him valuable to Boston

February 22nd, 2020

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- A first-round Draft selection (No. 31 overall) of the Red Sox way back in 2012, nearly saw his association with the only pro team that has ever employed him come to an end in late November.

The left-hander was placed on outright waivers, meaning any team in the Majors had two days to sign him.

When it didn’t happen, the Red Sox kept the swingman in the organization -- but not on the 40-man roster.

“Yeah, I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t caught by surprise after the way things [turned out],” Johnson said. “When I had my [exit interviews], I didn’t think that was happening, but things change.”

But the Red Sox haven’t given up on Johnson, either. He is a non-roster invitee this spring. And with wide-open competitions for both the final spot in the rotation and the final few spots in the bullpen, there are jobs up for grabs.

“I don’t know if 'different mentality' is the right word, but I do have a different approach,” Johnson said. “For me, I know I kind of feel like I did coming into ’18, where I was kind of a long shot to make the team.”

Not only did Johnson make that team -- a championship team, as it turned out -- but he was an important supporting cast member.

When the Sox opened Grapefruit League action on Saturday against the Rays, Johnson kicked things off with an eight-pitch first inning in which he quickly retired the side in order.

It was a quick reminder of the value Johnson provides when he is right. Just two seasons ago, he pitched 38 games, including 13 starts, notching a 4.17 ERA over 99 1/3 innings.

Due to his versatility to seamlessly go from the rotation to the bullpen and back, former Red Sox manager Alex Cora often referred to Johnson as one of the most important members of the ’18 squad.

But then, last year happened. Left elbow inflammation sidelined Johnson from April 6 to June 13. And when Johnson started to feel like he was at last finding a rhythm, a non-baseball medical injury put him out of action from June 23 to Aug. 2.

When he returned, and the Red Sox needed rotation depth just like in ’18, Johnson was unable to deliver with any consistency.

His '19 season (6.02 ERA, 21 appearances, seven starts, 40 1/3 innings) is one he’d like to forget.

Except, that season is what has put Johnson in the position he is in now -- fighting for his baseball livelihood.

Johnson has already overcome situations tougher than this one in his career. He was belted on the head by a batted ball in a Minor League game at Fenway in his first pro season of 2012, suffering multiple orbital fractures.

By the time Johnson earned a trip to the Majors in 2015, he was pitching through elbow woes that he didn’t feel comfortable telling the team about until it was too late. Johnson was held up at gunpoint that offseason.

And in 2016, he had to take a leave of absence due to anxiety and depression.

Johnson returned triumphantly in ’17 by throwing a shutout at Fenway against the Mariners.

In other words, don’t count Johnson out. He has a way of bouncing back from adversity.

The 29-year-old will take his latest comeback step by step. His versatility serves him well at a point when Boston’s pitching staff is very much in flux.

“It’s different when you’re a non-roster, but it’s not that different,” Red Sox interim manager Ron Roenicke said. “I think it’s easy to pop him on [the roster] if he’s the guy. So I think he needs to go about it the same as he’s always gone about it. Whether you’re trying to be that fifth starter on the roster or off, you go about it the same way.

“The nice thing about him is, we know he can also be a long reliever. We need that and think that’s important. With the new three-batter minimum, those left-handed specialists aren’t as important as the guy who can go through lineups, whether it’s lefty or righty. And two innings, the more we can get relievers to go multiple innings is way more valuable.”

So despite the roster maneuverings of November, Johnson might be able to provide just the type of value the Red Sox need.