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Red Sox minor league roundup: Why Brian Johnson’s prospect status may take off; Deven Marrero shows pop; Trey Ball, whiff-machine

05.04.14 at 1:15 pm ET
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The discussion of Red Sox pitching prospects has focused primarily on those who opened the year in the upper levels of the farm system, and with good reason. In Triple-A, the team features a rotation loaded with prospects who look like potential big league starters in Brandon Workman, Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo and Matt Barnes. The organization’s top pitching prospect is Henry Owens, who started the year in Double-A.

But it may become necessary in the not-too-distant future to open the door and broaden the conversation about the top pitchers in the system.

Left-hander Brian Johnson, promoted after just five starts in Salem, authored an impressive Double-A debut. He fired 5 1/3 innings in which he allowed two runs — both unearned — while permitting just three hits, all singles. He struck out three and walked none, with 61 of his 94 pitches (64 percent) finding the strike zone.

Johnson, 23, is in a different class from the rest of those upper levels Red Sox pitching prospects, all of whom have velocity that permits them to get swings and misses in the strike zone. While Johnson has shown the ability to touch 93, even 94, on occasion, that’s not who he is. By and large, in his pro career to date, he’s worked at 88-91 mph; in his Portland debut on Saturday, the stadium scoreboard had him mostly at 88-90 mph.

Yet he elicited a solid 11 swings and misses and opposing hitters made bad contact against him, as evidenced by the absence of extra-base knocks and the wealth of ground balls (he got eight, though a pair of errors were made behind him, resulting in the unearned runs). He showed poise and the ability to keep the game under control, and mostly, he showed a very advanced feel for pitching that has characterized his recent excellence in High-A Salem and now Portland.

In his last three starts, Johnson has totaled 17 1/3 innings without permitting an earned run. He’s struck out 16 and walked one, with opponents hitting .117/.131/.133 against him. He’s shown a veteran’s ability to employ his fastball — velocity be damned — inside to set up his breaking stuff (most notably, a curveball that was very good on Saturday as well as a changeup that has been a weapon for him at times this year; his slider is clearly his fourth pitch right now) away. The result has been an ability to unbalance opposing hitters and, of late, dominate.

The lack of premium velocity likely will suppress Johnson’s standings in prospect rankings. Yet there are a lot of believers in the Red Sox organization in the 2012 first-rounder’s abilities, and with good reason.

He repeats his delivery well, which permits him a chance to have above-average command with three pitches. Even if his fastball is average, it can open up the plate for what could be a very good curveball and perhaps a plus changeup (again, a pitch that has been excellent at times this year). One evaluator pointed to Dodgers lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu as an example of a pitcher who can excel in the absence of velocity thanks to premium execution.

It remains to be seen what Johnson ultimately becomes. He’s one start into his time in the upper levels. Perhaps his velocity will play up over the course of this year as it did as the year progressed in 2013, which would vault his standing even further. Perhaps it won’t, and perhaps there will be times when his stuff is a bit flat and makes him look vulnerable.

But ultimately, though cut from a different template than most of the Red Sox‘ top pitching prospects, Johnson has shown hints that he may soon — if he does not already — belong squarely in the conversation with them.

TRIPLE-A PAWTUCKET RED SOX: 4-3 LOSS AT INDIANAPOLIS (PIRATES)

(BOX)

Rubby De La Rosa was not sharp on Saturday, yet he was still effective, allowing two earned runs on four hits while striking out four over five-plus innings. De La Rosa gave up his season-high total in walks, issuing three free passes over his five-plus innings. Prior to his last two outings, De La Rosa had walked just four in 22 2 /3 innings, but he’€™s walked a total of eight over his last 10 innings.

The right-hander is still holding opposing hitters to a .173 average and has given up just seven extra-base hits (all doubles). De La Rosa has been especially tough against righties, holding opposing hitters to a .123/.188/.193 line. Only half of the balls put in play against De La Rosa on Saturday were on the ground, but the 25-year-old has still been a ground ball machine this season, with 63 percent of balls put in play against him being of the ground ball variety.

– De La Rosa left two runners on in the fifth inning after a walk and a hit, and reliever Drake Britton was unable to keep the inherited runners from scoring. Britton gave up a sac fly and two singles before retiring the side, and allowed two runs of his own in the seventh on a double, a single, a walk and a wild pitch.

The lefty had given up just one earned run through his first nine appearances (12 1 /3 innings) this season, but has allowed runs in back-to-back outings. Britton seems to be having command issues in the early going, walking the same number of batters that he’€™s struck out (12) and uncorking three wild pitches. Prior to Saturday’€™s outing (in which he walked one) he’€™d given up multiple free passes in three straight relief appearances.

Brandon Snyder clubbed his team-leading fifth home run of the season, a solo shot to right field. Though Snyder has shown some power and has driven in 12 runs, he is batting just .185 with a .280 OBP.

DOUBLE-A PORTLAND: 3-2 LOSS (7 INNINGS), 9-3 WIN (7 INNINGS) AT BINGHAMTON (METS)

(BOX GAME 1, BOX GAME 2)

– The line on Henry Owens‘ start in Game 1 of the double header wasn’t terribly impressive — three runs in a six-inning complete game loss — yet there were signs that it was one of his best outings of the year. He largely avoided hard contact, with five of the six hits he allowed going for one base (the other was a double), he struck out six in as many innings and perhaps most notably, he walked just one while pounding the strike zone with 57 of his 84 pitches (68 percent), a marked increase from his 57 percent strike rate over his prior three starts. There was a lapse in his sixth and final inning, when he gave up a pair of runs on a hit batter and wild pitch, but he gathered himself to record a punchout and groundout to end the inning.

– The hottest hitter in the Red Sox system right now is Travis Shaw. The first baseman played both halves of the doubleheader, going 5-for-7 with a pair of doubles. He now has multi-hit games in six of his last nine contests, hitting .432/.475/.730 with five doubles, two homers, three walks and just one strikeout. He’s now hitting .304/.402/.489 for the year with 14 walks and 10 strikeouts.

Deven Marrero bounced back from his worst offensive game of the year in the first contest (0-for-4, 3 strikeouts) by delivering his first Double-A homer in the second game, going 1-for-4 with the homer and a walk. It was just the fifth homer in 187 professional games for Marrero.

Still, the 23-year-old is clearly hitting the ball with greater authority in 2014 than he did in 2013. He had just 22 extra-base hits in 104 games in High-A Salem and Double-A last year — just over one for every five games player. This year, he has nine extra-base hits — eight doubles and a homer — in 19 games, an average of nearly one for every two contests, en route to a solid overall line of .286/.368/.429 with five steals in as many attempts, suggesting a player who, in combination with his outstanding defense at a premium position of shortstop, looks like a very good prospect.

– Feats of Mookie: Going all Ted Williams on the Eastern League. Mookie Betts collected hits in both halves of the double-header, following a 2-for-4 performance in the early game with a 1-for-5 night game, to leave his average at .406 for the year. He has a .458 OBP and .632, and with one steal in each contest, he now has 13 for the season (in 16 attempts), most in the Eastern League. Betts has more extra-base hits (15), walks (12) and steals (13) than strikeouts (9).

HIGH-A SALEM RED SOX: 5-3 LOSS AT LYNCHBURG (BRAVES)

(BOX)

– Cody Kukuk made his High-A debut after going 3-0 with a 1.88 ERA in four starts for the Greenville Drive this season. The left-hander lasted four innings, permitting two runs on two hits while striking out four. Kukuk was wild, however, issuing four walks, hitting a batter, and launching four wild pitches. The 21-year-old’€™s command has been iffy all season; he walked an average of 4.5 batters per nine innings in Greenville this season, though he’d been throwing strikes in greater volume in his final outings prior to his promotion.

– Second baseman Reed Gragnani went 1-for-3 with a triple, RBI and a walk. The 23-year-old, who was taken as a 21st round pick in 2013′€™s draft out of the University of Virginia, has been on fire to start the season, and is now hitting .389/.464/.542 through his first 19 games with Salem. Gragnani has been especially impressive as of late, batting .448 with five extra-base hits (two doubles, three triples) and drawing eight walks while striking out just three times over his last nine games.

– Reliever Simon Mercedes was hit hard in his 3 2 /3 innings of work, giving up three runs (two earned) on six hits while walking two, though he struck out a season-high six batters. The 22-year-old owns a 4.87 ERA in his 20 1 /3 innings, mostly coming in long relief, but he has managed to strike out an average of almost 10 batters per nine innings and has held right-handed hitters to a .185 average.

SINGLE-A GREENVILLE DRIVE: 4-2 LOSS AT AUGUSTA (GIANTS)

(BOX)

Trey Ball lasted five innings in his second outing of the season, setting a new career high in strikeouts, fanning six (more than his total in five starts with Lowell last season) while getting a total of 16 swinging strikes on the day with all but three coming on the fastball. The 19-year-old allowed three runs on six hits and gave up two doubles, a triple and a home run, but he didn’€™t walk a single batter.

Manuel Margot went 2-for-4 with a run scored. The 19-year-old center fielder has been heating up at the plate, batting .407 with three doubles, three walks and only two strikeouts over his last seven contests. Margot also swiped his ninth base of the season. He’€™s been caught three times.

– One of the younger members of the Drive, 18-year-old Wendell Rijo, went 2-for-3 with a walk on Saturday. Despite being more than three years younger than the average South Atlantic League player, Rijo has more than held his own, batting .315/.451/.466 through 22 games. He’€™s drawn 17 walks while striking out 18 times.

Read More: brian johnson, cody kukuk, deven marrero, travis shaw
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