Johnson, Developing as a Reliever, Awaits Wrigley Call

Pierce Johnson, it seems like for as long as we can remember, has been the Cubs’ pitching prospect. At a time when hitters dominated the ranks of Chicago’s minor league system, and not to mention all the headlines, Johnson was alone on the pitching side. The hitters have graduated, but Johnson’s trajectory toward the big leagues has flown a bit off course.

Johnson was drafted in the first round in 2012 by the current Cubs regime with the compensatory pick they received when Aramis Ramirez signed with the Milwaukee Brewers. He stands tall and slender, at 6’3” and 200 pounds, with long, blond hair streaming out of his baseball cap that justifies his Twitter handle–@Flowbro33. Scouts love his curveball, and BP rated him in the top-101 prospects in the league prior to both the 2014 and 2015 seasons. His ceiling places him as a potential middle-of-the-rotation kind of pitcher.

But Johnson has had his struggles with injuries, mainly of the non-arm variety. That’s probably what’s been the most frustrating about his wonky development path—all the times it’s been slowed due to hamstring strains or ankle injuries. But still, when he has been healthy Johnson has tantalized the Cubs with his talent. In parts of two seasons in Double-A, for example, he started 33 games with a 2.31 ERA and 1.189 WHIP.

But 2016 has been a disaster for the now-25-year-old pitcher. His control, a problem for him at times in the past, went off the rails—he has averaged 6.2 BB/9 this year. He’s striking out a decent amount of batters, at 9.8 K/9, but he’s really been hit hard. Johnson entered play today with a 7.07 ERA in 49 2/3 innings pitched.

Recently, the Cubs made a change with Johnson that may be best for him in the long run. He has moved out of the starting rotation and into the bullpen, where he’s been used frequently in two-inning stints. It’s a big change, but Johnson has been adjusting nicely.

For a guy that has been a starter his entire career, you could understand if Johnson felt uncomfortable with pitching out of the bullpen. But he’s been pretty open about giving it a fair try.

“I don’t think I’ve had enough of a trial out there to kind of see, but so far I’ve enjoyed it,” he said. “It’s totally different, recovery is a little different too throwing on a little bit of shorter rest. I’ve enjoyed it so far and all the guys in the bullpen have kind of helped me kind of get the routine down and everything.”

So far, things have been good for Johnson out of the ‘pen. After a rough first outing, in which he pitched two innings but allowed three earned runs on five hits, he’s looked extremely polished out there. In his last four appearances, Johnson has combined for seven innings, just two hits, one earned run, four walks and 12 strikeouts. A big key for him has been how he’s used his pitches differently, focusing on what he does well.

“I’ve kind of stayed with my best two, really,” said Johnson. “You’re going in and some days as a starter, you know, you only have two pitches. But now I’m kind of eliminating as much as I can. At least my changeup and my cutter.

“My breaking ball is what got me drafted, so as long as that’s sharp and then my fastball’s there, I’m gonna stick with those. But if the game calls for something else, then I’m going to throw those in because I still have them in my back pocket.”

Using primarily his fastball and his curveball—as we’ve seen Carl Edwards Jr. do in his time in the Cubs bullpen—could definitely help the young right-hander find success. But Johnson’s continued work on all of his pitches seem to indicate that his career as a starting pitcher may not be over quite yet.

“I still work on those other pitches every day,” Johnson added. “So it’s not like I’m getting rid of them completely. Really, I just want to go out there and throw my best pitches. Cause I don’t have to set anybody up, I’m just trying to get outs.”

In the past, we’ve seen teams move pitchers to the bullpen in an effort to get them to the big leagues quicker and help move the development along before shifting them back into the rotation. The St. Louis Cardinals did it successfully with Adam Wainwright and Carlos Martinez. The Cubs have even stated this plan in the past for Edwards, as well.

But they haven’t said anything, at least publicly, about their intentions in moving Johnson to the ‘pen.

“I’m kind of in the dark, a little bit,” he said. “But they did mention something about ‘the fast track’, so maybe in September? I’m not sure. I’m pretty in the dark about that. But I’m just excited to pitch, whether it’s starting our out the ‘pen. If I have more success out of the pen, might as well keep me there, right?”

If a call up in September is truly in the cards, the Cubs haven’t made any such indication to Johnson.

“I think it all depends on how well I do, really,” he said. “I mean, the team’s been doing so well up there that I don’t really think they need much help right now. So, I’m hoping to get the opportunity to go up there. That would be awesome. I would love and cherish that.”

Now in his fourth year in the Cubs organization and set to turn 26 years old next May, it seems as though the Cubs are hearing the clock tick on the development of one of their most promising pitching prospects. Moving him to the bullpen now and giving him a look in the big leagues in September, if that is their plan, might be the best way to determine how to move forward with Johnson going into 2017. He may never be a middle-of-the-rotation starter, but one thing is pretty clear—it doesn’t matter the role, what matters to Johnson is that he simply get there.

Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports.

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