CHICAGO | In his second big-league start Tuesday, Erik Johnson got more education on the double-meaning of his appearances since his Sept. 1 call-up from Triple-A Charlotte.
First, the White Sox’s top starting pitching prospect is trying to help himself through some tough break-in assignments to secure a rotation spot for 2014.
The 23-year-old Johnson’s big-league debut was in Yankee Stadium last Wednesday. A smidgeon of wildness through another mega Sox losing streak helped notch a loss.
"When you start your first game and it’s at Yankee Stadium, it’s a different place for a lot of different reasons," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said.
In 90-degree heat Tuesday against the Tigers, Johnson had to deal with both Miguel Cabrera and his own fielders, twin heartbreakers for the more experienced Sox pitchers. The first of three errors by third baseman Conor Gillaspie – shaky in the field of late – and a passed ball by batterymate Josh Phegley led to two unearned runs in the eventual 9-1 loss.
Four of the six runs charged to Johnson in a workload of 3 2/3 innings and a laborious 96 pitches were unearned. Judgment on the stocky righty is still waiting for bigger sample sizes. He has allowed six unearned runs in his two starts.
"I had some tough breaks out there," said Johnson. "I thought I attacked the zone as best I could. I could have worked ahead of a few more hitters, of course, and put myself in a better situation."
More creditable performances by Johnson going forward means so much to Sox general manager Rick Hahn. Locking up a '14 starting spot gives Hahn the option to trade from a starting pitching surplus – a move he so far has been reluctant to make, but now lets cross his lips due to crying needs among the eight starting players.
"It might be a strength we can dip into a little bit to help augment some other needs," Hahn said Monday. "It’s not one we want to compromise too greatly, because that is ultimately how we feel we’ll be able to compete."
Further development of Johnson and fellow rookie Andre Rienzo, both right-handers, could enable Hahn to dangle an attractive lefty like Hector Santiago or even Jose Quintana, tonight’s starter, to snare multiple bats (and preferably gloves) in an offseason trade. Hahn will have to employ all means of talent acquisitions to improve a sorry lineup that on Sunday narrowly avoided historically unprecedented twin 10-game losing streaks less than two months apart.
In the dying gasps of this forgettable season, Johnson has the chance to truly define himself while helping out his big boss after going a combined 12-3 with a 1.96 ERA with 131 strikeouts in 142 2/3 innings at Charlotte and Double-A Birmingham.
Ventura’s longtime curiosity will seek an answer about Johnson, whom he watched at Cal-Berkeley shortly before Ventura was named a Sox minor-league adviser on June 6, 2011.
Whatever Johnson shows, he has to make Phegley’s analysis come true for the convenience of Hahn:
"We’ll never have a shortage of starters."
He meant pitchers, of course.