Going back to August 10, the Red Sox came into the week having gotten their 2020 season off to a disappointing 6-9 start even after a walk-off victory over the Blue Jays the day before.
Through the club’s first 15 games, Boston pitchers had posted an ERA and xFIP of 4.74, good for the third and sixth-highest marks in the American League, respectively.
Despite those early struggles, the Sox opted to give unfamiliar names a shot at the major-league level while keeping others with major-league experience down at the alternate training site in Pawtucket.
One of said pitchers who spent a good portion of his summer in Pawtucket was none other than Brian Johnson. The 29-year-old southpaw was less than two full years removed from serving as a valuable swingman who could make spot starts and pitch out of the bullpen when needed for the eventual 2018 World Series champions.
Injuries and illness derailed Johnson’s 2019 campaign, though, and with a new head of baseball operations at the helm in chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, the former top prospect was stripped of his spot on Boston’s 40-man roster and was ultimately outrighted to the minors.
Even with that demotion in his pocket as he reported to Fort Myers in February, Johnson looked solid in his spring outings and again at Summer Camp following the pandemic-induced hiatus.
Given the depleted state of the Red Sox starting rotation with Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez sidelined for different reasons, the Florida native appeared primed for a bounce-back year in 2020 while primarily operating as a back-end starter.
Alas, that possibility never came to fruition, as Johnson was not named to Boston’s Opening Day roster in late July and was instead sent off to Pawtucket.
A little over two weeks had passed since the 2020 major-league season had kicked off, and still nothing. Johnson found himself toiling away at McCoy Stadium, wondering if he was going to get another shot anytime soon with the team that had drafted him eight years ago.
When August 10 arrived, it was first reported that Johnson had left the alternate training site for an undisclosed reason, but it was later revealed and made official that he had asked for and granted his release from the Red Sox.
“Sometimes you need to go other places to have a better opportunity,” then-Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke said of Johnson at the time. “He asked for his release. Chaim did not want to keep him from an opportunity to get back to the big-leagues. Although we would like him here for depth, that’s the decision Brian wanted.”
Roenicke also cited the fact that Johnson was out of minor-league options and was off the Sox’ 40-man roster as reasons for why the southpaw had slipped down the organization’s pitching ranks.
Johnson himself recounted how things transpired over the summer, from not making the Sox’ Opening Day roster to asking for his release, when speaking with WEEI’s Rob Bradford on the most recent installment of the Bradfo Sho podcast.
“Everyone has a reason for doing things,” he said. “The Red Sox can do what’s best for the Red Sox, and Brian needs to do what’s best for Brian. They just thought going that route was better for them, which I understand. They wanted to see what they had in guys that Chaim brought over, which is totally understandable. I don’t hold any grudge or ill will. The whole process was very professional on both ends. There was no bad blood. I talked to Chaim and [Brian O’Halloran] throughout the whole process along with my agent. Everything was talked out at length and it was very professional on both sides.”
Arriving at the decision to request his release from the only organization he had ever known was no easy quest for Johnson. His path to the big-leagues was filled with adversity both on and off the field, and the Red Sox had helped him fight those battles.
“It sucks, because there have been so many ups and downs in my career with the Red Sox,” he continued. “I said this years ago, that they helped me so much in a lot of ways. So it was like I felt guilty doing it, but at what point in time do you have to do what you feel is right for you? I felt like I hit that breaking point to where I wasn’t doing what I wanted. So I made that decision.”
After not getting picked up by another club over the remainder of the 2020 season, Johnson is about to embark on something he has never experienced before: an offseason without a team to turn to, although he is receiving interest from a handful of potential suitors.
“At first I was nervous,” he said. “But now I do have teams calling to sign me for next year, so I feel more confident that that happens. Once those first few phone calls come in, you feel more confident… What we experienced this year, there’s never been anything to judge it off of, you’re learning as you go, so I was nervous.”
Whichever team winds up signing Johnson, presumably to a minor-league deal, should be something worth monitoring over the winter and into the spring.