LHP Kris Johnson was pretty much the "who he" guy among the late summer call ups. Well, he hit on hard times with Boston and is relatively unknown in Pittsburgh, but he is a pitcher with a strong pedigree.
When he was a teen working for Blue Springs High School in Missouri , he tossed five no-hitters and was drafted by the Anaheim Angels in the 50th round of the 2003 draft. He passed on that and instead went to Witchita State, where his 2.01 ERA led the Missouri Valley Conference in his freshman year.
In 2005, the year before he was eligible to re-enter the draft, he underwent TJ surgery. It cost him a season, a few spots in the lottery and eventually his curve ball, but he came back strong and quickly. The Boston Red Sox selected Johnson 40th overall in the sandwich round of the 2006 draft and gave him an $850K signing bonus.
Johnson pitched through the Class AA levels successfully through 2008, (he was Pitcher of the Year in the NY-PA League for 2006 and an Eastern League Pitcher of the Week in 2008), and in the 2009 preseason was rated the #16 prospect in the Boston system per Baseball America, his third straight year as a Red Sox Top Twenty Prospect.
He started the 2009 campaign with the Red Sox AAA club at Pawtucket, just a step from the show. But instead of being his segue season, the wheels fell off as he was 3-16 and was sent down to the AA Portland Sea Dogs, where he went 0-3. His season ended with 3-16 record with a 6.35 ERA, and Johnson led the minors with most losses.
He spent the 2010-11 seasons with Pawtucket. Johnson put together a barely passable 6-13, 4.88 line in 2010, and after getting raked in a June, 2011 outing was released and finished the season with the indy Kansas City T-Bones.
The Bucs are always on the lookout for reclamation projects with a special jones for Red Sox prospects, and signed Johnson during the off season. He followed the same pattern; in 2012, he was sharp at Altoona, but had problems when promoted to Indy. Still, the Pirates signed him up again for 2013 and assigned him back to the Tribe.
Working primarily as a starter, he went 10-4/2.39 with a 1.172 WHIP there, a late but welcome breakout campaign. The knock against him had been that he was a nibbler, trying for chases rather than going after the more disciplined hitters in the upper levels. It showed in his walks per game, which ranged from 3.5 to 4.1 in his AA/AAA seasons; it was 2.9 at Indy.
On August 18th, 2013, Johnson was added to the 25 man roster and took his MLB bow against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He pitched six frames of extra-inning relief that day against the Snakes, finally surrendering two runs in the 16th to take the loss. Kris was optioned back to Indy afterwards to bring up a fresh arm, but was quickly back with the first wave of September call-ups.
Johnson made his first start for the Pirates against the Cardinals on September 1st, replacing Jeff Locke. He was clocked, giving up five runs, but later redeemed himself with a couple of clean relief appearances.
He has a three pitch package: a two seamer that averaged 92, a slider/cutter, and a plus changeup. Johnson is historically a 50% GB pitcher that doesn't give up many homers; on the other side of the coin, he's not a strikeout guy and his control isn't consistent.
His 6.17 Bucco ERA was biased by his terrible outing against the Cards; his SIERA was 3.75 and his xFIP 3.95, neither brilliant but both workmanlike. Johnson started out as a pitcher without noticeable splits, but in the past couple of seasons has become more or less a LOOGY. That and the fact that like Brandon Cumpton, he gets easier to hit the second time through the order marks him as a bullpen candidate.
At 29, he's not part of the Pirates' long-term plan , but he could serve a purpose over the next couple of years. Johnson has two options left, and he's a southpaw in an organization that's not deep in LHP. Without too much pressure on the 40-man roster this season, he's got a good shot to be carried over (although certainly not a sure thing) and stowed away at Indy to serve, as he did this year, as an insurance policy for the MLB team.