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Red Sox minor-league notebook: Kris Johnson is on the way to rescuing his career

09:23 PM EDT on Monday, May 31, 2010

By DANIEL BARBARISI

Journal Sports Writer

As turnarounds go, few have been as quick and dramatic as the renaissance of Triple-A pitcher Kris Johnson. Johnson plumbed depths so low that even he stopped believing he could ever turn it around.

“It got to the point where I was almost accepting failure every time out. It came to the point where I was expecting to lose,” Johnson said.

Once the label of “bust” is affixed to a young player, it usually sticks. And Johnson came very, very close to wearing that tag. But just as he was beginning to fall off the major-league radar, Johnson has pulled off an astonishing revival, reclaiming his prospect status and rewarding the organization’s faith in him.

“He’s done a complete 180, and that’s hard to do,” said his manager, Torey Lovullo. “He deserves so much credit for picking himself up and figuring it out this year.

In seven starts this year, Johnson has a 2.81 ERA, best among PawSox starters. He has made quality starts (more than six innings, three runs or less) in six of them. Sunday, he pitched seven innings and allowed only two unearned runs in a game the PawSox eventually won in the late innings. He’s now allowed three runs in his past 25 innings, and has a rotation-leading 3.83 ERA even when a few ugly early-season relief appearances are included.

The Red Sox took Johnson with the 40th pick in the 2006 draft, gave him an $850,000 signing bonus and hoped for big things from the lanky lefty. Coming into 2009, he was ranked among the organization’s top 20 prospects. He started the year off well. Then he completely fell apart.

Johnson went 3-16 with a 6.35 ERA between Pawtucket and Portland, leading the minors in losses. The Sox demoted him to Double-A late in the year –– and he still couldn’t get anyone out.

It eventually got so bad that he went more than 300 days without winning a start.

Johnson blames his own arrogance for his troubles. He kicked off 2009 with a pair of good starts, and his head began to swell. He started to dream of a major-league callup.

“I started putting too much pressure on myself,” Johnson said. “I started saying, O.K., you can hopefully get called up, so you’ve got to start being even more perfect than you have been. And then everything snowballed. My very next start I got tattooed for like 8 runs.”

Despite the awful record, Red Sox brass believed in the 25-year-old, and Johnson was invited back to major-league spring training again this year. It was there that his transformation began. Johnson sat down with Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, who told him to get back to the pitcher he was in 2008, when he put up a 3.63 ERA in Double-A Portland.

That was only the beginning. He still had to learn to trust himself. For that, he credits pitching coach Rich Sauveur. Johnson was forced to work out of the bullpen to start the year, and he wasn’t attacking hitters aggressively enough. The coach saw that Johnson was still tentative, afraid to throw balls over the middle of the plate.

“No pitcher wants to get hit. So last year, when I was really getting hit – and I got hit hard a lot –– it was like ‘Throw it and hope they don’t hit it,” Johnson said.

Sauveur told Johnson he needed to start taking chances, and quit trying to be perfect. Stop trying to be so fine. Just throw strikes.

It clicked. As he entered the starting rotation, Johnson began working off the fastball, starting hitters with strikes rather than falling behind in the count. Now, he can use his strong secondary pitches –– his changeup, his curve, his cutter –– to maximum effect.

Success came almost immediately, and Sauveur could see the confidence start to well up inside the young lefty.

“It’s not so much a fake confidence that he showed last year, because he would walk around and look O.K. – but now he’s walking around and it’s coming out of him,” Sauveur said.

It’s not just confidence, it’s maturity, said Sox minor league pitching coordinator Ralph Treuel.

“Bottom line is, he’s grown up,” Treuel said. “He’s learned and found what he needs to do. It’s not an accident anymore when he has success – he’s established a good routine and a good foundation, and he’s not worrying about the results all the time.”

Johnson still has a long, long way to go, and a lot to prove, before 2009 is forgotten. Lovullo estimates that it takes a half-season before most organizations will fully change their mind on a player’s abilities. But he’s got the tools, and he’s off to an excellent start.

“You look at K.J., and he’s got big-league stuff all around,” Lovullo said. “He’s got a full package of big league pitches, he’s got them mixed up in a bag, and now he’s pulling them out one by one when he needs them. I think it’s really coming together for him.”

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The major league baseball draft is June 7 to 9, and the Red Sox will have a bevy of picks to spend this year.

Thanks to the free-agency departures of Jason Bay and Billy Wagner, the Red Sox have the 20th, 36th and 39th picks in the draft. The 20th pick is the highest selection they’ve had since 2003.

Several mock drafts have pegged the Sox taking pitcher Anthony Ranaudo or infielder Kaleb Cowart with the 20th pick.

Ranaudo is a 6-7 righty from Louisiana State who was once considered a lock as a top-five pick, but he has struggled for much of this year following elbow issues.

Cowart is an infield and pitching prospect out of Georgia’s Cook County High School, but there are concerns over whether he would sign without a large bonus.

The Sox have also been linked to Ball State infielder Kolbrin Vitek, who might be an intriguing pick if he fell to the Sox at No. 20.

This is the first draft for new Sox director of amateur scouting Amiel Sawdaye, who took over for departed director Jason McLeod, one of the most respected drafters in the game. McLeod went to San Diego this winter to join former Sox assistant GM Jed Hoyer.

Sawdaye apprenticed under McLeod for the past five years, so the hope is for a seamless transition.

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Reliever Dustin Richardson keeps firing his hard, darting fastball, and opposing hitters keep missing. Keep that up and he could end up doing it in the major leagues before long.

Richardson, 26, has been sending batters on the long walk back to the dugout with surprising ease in May, bringing his strikeout totals to 37 Ks in 28 innings this year.

“It’s pretty impressive,” said his manager, Lovullo. ”He’s striking out almost two batters per inning over this last stretch of outings. But behind that is a lot of hard work. Working on fastball command, coming out of the bullpen ready to throw your best pitch as your first pitch.”

The tall lefty has done it mostly with his stellar fastball, which has great movement and sits in the low 90s. He uses it both to attack and as his out pitch. His developing slider is still useful and in the mix, but it’s all fastball, all the time when Richardson needs a key out.

“You’ve got to be fearless when you throw it in there, you can’t be scared to throw it,” Richardson said. “A lot of times I’ve been 2-0, and I can put a fastball in, break a bat, get the out. But the breaking ball’s coming along, and that’s what I need to focus on right now.”

If and when the Red Sox need more bullpen help later this year, Richardson could be a prime option. Regardless, if he can harness the slider the way he has his fastball, he’ll knock on the door so loudly they’ll have to let him in.

“We certainly would like to see the breaking ball come on as rapidly as the fastball has,” Lovullo said.“And in spurts, it’s there. But I really think as soon as he does master the breaking ball, we’re going to have a pretty special major league pitcher,” Lovullo said.

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FIVE ON THE FARM

STOLMY PIMENTEL: The young Salem Red Sox starter has had a month that hints at his promise, and also shows how much learning he still has to do. Since April 30, when he gave up seven runs in 3.2 innings, Pimentel has alternated one good start with one bad one.

On May 5, it was one run in five innings; On May 10, four runs in four. Then on May 15, Pimentel threw six perfect innings for high-A Salem, striking out four. His next outing, he fell back to earth, giving up three runs in five innings. But he bounced back on May 27 with more near-perfection, throwing six hitless innings and walking only one. He has a 3.72 ERA and a 4-2 record on the season.

Only 20 years old, Pimentel is still growing into his 6-3 frame, and his fastball-curveball-changeup mix is strong. The undrafted free agent right-hander is very tough on his fellow righties, and if the Dominican native can find some consistency, his future looks very bright.

JOSH REDDICK: The Pawtucket outfielder and top prospect’s batting average is still mired below .200 –– and luck hasn’t helped. Twice this week, the opposing center fielder has leapt above the outfield wall to rob him of a home run. Reddick seemed resigned after it happened again Monday versus Charlotte.

“Second time this week,” Reddick said, shaking his head. “At least I’m hitting the ball hard.”

MARIO AND RAUL ALCANTARA: The Dominican Summer League began this week, and the Alcantaras are two of the biggest names on the Red Sox’ Dominican squad. The two pitchers are unrelated, but are both 17, roughly 6-2 to 6-3 right-handed Dominican natives, and both signed for big money last summer. Mario signed for a reported $350,000 bonus in 2009, and Raul topped him with a $500,000 bonus.

Raul Alcantara was spotty in his first outing this weekend, but if the pair develop as expected, they could find themselves heading stateside before long to continue to learn and grow as pitchers. So far, the DSL Sox are 2-0

JOSUE PELEY: The 22-year-old Peley, a catcher, was acquired this week in exchange for outfielder Jonathan Van Every. Peley is a 6-0, 175-pound Venezuelan native from the low levels of Pittsburgh’s minor league system, originally picked as a 35th-rounder in the 2006 draft.

He’s hit only .179 in 67 at-bats so far this year, and he hasn’t hit over .200 since the Gulf Coast League in 2007. He figures to report to the low minors of the Sox system, or perhaps stay in Fort Myers for the time being.

RYAN KALISH: After a slow start, Kalish has been hammering the ball at Double-A Portland, collecting nine hits and two home runs in his last three games. He now has a .293 average, nine homers, 29 RBI and a .404 on-base percentage on the season. He was promoted to Pawtucket on Monday.

dbarbari@projo.com

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