Garin Cecchini hit his first homer since last July on Friday. (Salem Red Sox)
It can be easy for pitching prospects to be forgotten in the lower levels of the Red Sox minor league system. After all, with a high-ceiling inventory of arms in Double-A and Triple-A, the line that has formed in front of those who remain in A-ball is long, creating the likelihood of a deliberate progression through the minors.
Yet just because they are at a greater remove from the big leagues does not mean that such pitchers aren’t an important part of the Red Sox future. And perhaps no Red Sox pitcher in A-ball is more likely to embody that notion than left-hander Brian Johnson.
The 2012 first-round selection out of the University of Florida — where he was the best two-way player in the country (a power-hitting first baseman to accompany his mound work) — Johnson was often forgotten in his first full pro season of 2013, in no small part because he struggled out of the gate after his first professional offseason was spent recovering from a line drive to the face. He couldn’t follow a normal strength program, and so he struggled with stuff and results early in the year in Single-A Greenville before landing on the DL with shoulder tendinitis.
But when he came back, Johnson showed some of the more interesting raw materials in the Sox system. The left-hander saw his velocity bump up, topping out towards the end of the year at 94 and 95 mph, while mixing in a diverse array of secondary offerings — curve, slider, changeup. None of the pitches graded as better than average last year, but the Sox believe the curveball could play up, and his feel for pitching suggests the future possibility of adding more weapons, such as a cutter.
The 23-year-old was one of the more impressive performers in spring training games, and given that he came from an elite college program and demonstrated feel for pitching, there were those in the Sox system who believed that, despite the slow progression in his first full pro season (when he spent almost all of 2013 in Greenville, moving up to Salem only at the very end of the year for two starts), he had a chance to accelerate his development pace going forward, much as Brandon Workman did after spending all of his first full pro season of 2011 in Greenville.
Johnson started slowly this year, getting tons of swings and misses (20 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings) in his first three starts — with his changeup having emerged as an intriguing weapon at times — but permitting 11 runs (7.24 ERA). But on Friday, he was nothing short of brilliant, firing six perfect innings with five strikeouts and seven groundouts while showing the ability to throw off-speed and breaking stuff in any count for strikes and working efficiently.
He recorded seven swings and misses with his curveball, but more significant than the quality of any single pitch was the way that he executed with his arsenal. He threw strikes with all four pitches, and did an impressive job of attacking inside to open up the outer half of the plate for breaking stuff. And he pounded strike after strike, in a way that caught the attention of Winston-Salem.
“At one point, we had thrown 120 pitches, and their guy had thrown 45,” Winston-Salem manager Tommy Thompson noted to the Winston-Salem Journal.
There are a lot of believers in Johnson in the Red Sox organization. While evaluators from other organizations last year came away underwhelmed — mostly on the basis of starts early in the year, before his velocity crept up — and saw a potential back-of-the-rotation starter, he’s shown enough in terms of his raw materials — the possibility of working comfortably with 91-93 or even 94 mph velocity, with a curve or change that can get swings and misses, to suggest the possibility of a durable mid-rotation presence who has a chance to become a very important part of the Red Sox’ future.
Certainly, he’s further from the big leagues than pitchers like Workman and Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster and Matt Barnes and Anthony Ranaudo, but there are times when it’s possible to imagine a future in which he *could* be more important than any of those pitchers. Friday’s 18-up, 18-down effort was one such moment.
A snapshot of the rest of the action in the Red Sox farm system on Friday:
TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX: 7-3 LOSS VS. BUFFALO (BLUE JAYS)
– Third baseman Garin Cecchini hit his first homer of the season and indeed his first homer since last July 16, ending a homerless drought of 58 games without going deep. Cecchini is comfortable with the idea of being a line drive hitter rather than a power hitter. The 22-year-old (who turns 23 on Sunday) has the size (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) and strength to hit for power, and when the Red Sox drafted him in the fourth round of the 2010 draft (and gave him a first-round bonus), he was viewed as a potential middle-of-the-order power hitter coming out of high school. But Cecchini embraced the idea that going deep was not a primary goal.
“I remember people writing scouting reports saying I had so much power. I tell my teammates this all the time: In high school, that’s all I was trying to do was hit home runs,” said Cecchini. “I hit a home run in [a high school showcase in] the Metrodome, in the upper deck, and I’m just doing this: I’m trying to get linear movement and I’m trying to hit the ball 450 feet. And I did it. That’s the reason why people said I had some power coming out of high school, because in my BP’s, that’s all I tried to do was hit home runs.
“But you start facing 90 mph every single time’¦ I can’t sleep at night striking out two times a day and hitting a rod off of Fenway Park‘s Green Monster,” he added. “I can sleep at night going 1-for-3 with two walks, two hard-hit balls right up the middle and no strikeouts. I can sleep like that. That’s just me. I can’t go to bed every night going all out, trying to hit home runs and hit 20 home runs but hit .160. That’s just me. I don’t think I help the team that way. That’s just me.”
There remains a chance that, like a Kevin Youkilis, Cecchini will eventually translate his advanced pitch recognition into the selective ability to drive the ball. But whereas a hitter with power but without the ability to hit for average or get on base has limited value, Cecchini’s offensive approach — which should yield high averages and OBPs — suggests that he’ll have considerable value as an everyday member of the lineup regardless of the development of his power.
– Allen Webster continued to pitch with stuff that can’t be hit hard, but also continued his ongoing battle with the strike zone. The right-hander allowed four hits — all singles — in 5 1/3 innings, and he recorded seven outs via groundball (inspiring a pair of double plays), but he also walked four and hit a batter while striking out three. He has issued 12 walks (second most in the International League) in 20 innings of work, a rate of 5.4 per nine innings, and in contrast to a year ago, when he punched out more than a batter an inning, Webster has just 5.0 strikeouts per nine innings and a 3.60 ERA. The difference between Webster working ahead or behind in the count is extreme — opponents are hitting .261/.292/.304 against him when behind in the count, and .316/.581/.737 when ahead in the count.
– With Cecchini playing third base every day and Ryan Lavarnway getting most of the starts at first base, versatile corner Brandon Snyder has been branching out and spending some time in left field. He made his fifth start in left on Friday, going 1-for-4 with a double. However, he also struck out three times, adding to an April where he’s punched out frequently. In 49 plate appearances, he has a .167/.265/.381 line with 15 punchouts. Five of his seven hits, however, have been for extra bases (three doubles, two homers).
DOUBLE-A PORTLAND SEA DOGS: 6-4 WIN, 6-0 WIN AT NEW BRITAIN (TWINS)
(BOX GAME 1, BOX GAME 2)
– Left-hander Miguel Pena logged 4 2/3 innings, recording a mind-boggling 11 of his 14 outs via punchout over the course of 4 2/3 shutout innings in the second game of the double header. The 11 punchouts represented a career high; he had games of nine and eight punchouts in Single-A Greenville in 2012. Pena allowed two hits (a single and double) and walked one.
He’s not a power pitcher in the conventional sense, as he typically operates in the 90-92 mph range. However, the 23-year-old shows the ability to throw strikes with a four-pitch mix, and his ability to mix and locate can result in occasional surprises along the lines of his performance on Friday, when he exhibited the ability to dominate while working primarily with a well-spotted fastball that resulted in a whopping 20 swings and misses.
He’s not often discussed among Red Sox pitching prospects because he lacks the ceiling of other members of the organization, but Pena nonetheless possesses the on-the-mound fearlessness, strike-throwing ability and left-handedness that suggests a high likelihood of a future at some point in the big leagues. In three starts this year, he’s 1-0 with a 2.13 ERA, 16 strikeouts and five walks in 12 2/3 innings.
– First baseman Travis Shaw, who entered Friday in a season-long slump (4-for-35 with no extra-base hits in 10 games), broke out of the funk with a 4-for-4 game that included a homer. The 24-year-old doubled his hits total in the one contest.
– Catcher Blake Swihart followed a 1-for-4 first game of the double header (in which he caught) with a 2-for-4 performance that included his first homer of the year in the nightcap. The homer came against a left-handed pitcher, continuing a season in which the switch-hitting Swihart has — somewhat true to career form — done more damage batting right-handed. So far, he’s 9-for-17 with a double, triple and homer and seven runs batted in against lefties (.529/.529/.882), and just 4-for-22 with a double and one RBI against righties (.182/.217/.227). Still, even though he’s a natural right-handed hitter and despite those career splits, evaluators suggest that Swihart shows the approach, fluidity and bat control from both sides of the plate to be able to handle pitchers of both handedness.
– Feats of Mookie: Streaking, barely. Mookie Betts entered Friday having reached base multiple times in nine of his first 10 games of the year. But he reached just once in both ends of Friday’s doubleheader, going 1-for-4 with no walks in each contest. Still, dating to last season, he’s now reached base in 42 straight games.
HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: 8-2 WIN AT WINSTON-SALEM (WHITE SOX)
– Second baseman Reed Gragnani, 23, remained a hits machine in the early stages of his season. Since returning from a six-day absence due to injury, he’s had two straight 2-for-5 games. He’s now hitting .414/.469/.483 in seven games this year. He’s an astonishing 9-for-16 with three walks and just one strikeout with runners in scoring position, resulting in nine runs driven in over the course of just 32 plate appearances.
– Outfielder Kevin Heller went 0-for-3 but walked twice. His OBP now sits at .489, second in the Carolina League.
SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE: RAINED OUT AT SAVANNAH (METS)