When looking at the Boston Red Sox, there’s not much to worry about. The starting rotation is one of the best in baseball, J.D. Martinez leads the league in home runs, and Andrew Benintendi has been on an absolute tear. However, there is currently a big Achilles heel to the unit, as the Boston Red Sox order have a depth problem that needs to be resolved.
The bottom of the order has been an issue all season, but it has become a far more pressing matter in recent weeks. The release of Hanley Ramirez brought attention to the issue, and injuries Dustin Pedroia and Mookie Betts have only made it worse. The Red Sox currently have production problems at second base, third base, catcher, and two of their top four outfield spots. Let’s take a look at the players that currently fill out the roster, and how to maximize their production moving forward.
The Current Scenario
With Pedroia sidelined, manager Alex Cora has utilized Eduardo Nunez as the primary second baseman with Brock Holt serving as the main backup. Meanwhile, Rafael Devers has started nearly every game at third, with Nunez or Holt spelling him in the occasional off day. Without Mookie Betts, the outfield and designated hitter roles typically feature some combination of Martinez, Benintendi, Holt, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Blake Swihart. At catcher, Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon serve as a two-man backstop.
Just about all of the aforementioned names are struggling to some extent. There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s break this issue down position by position, and figure out the best options for the Red Sox moving forward.
Second and Third Base
Nunez has struggled this season, both on the bat and on the field. Nunez was never going to win a Gold Glove, but his defense has been subpar even by his owns standards. Additionally, he’s been a nonfactor at the plate. While he has improved recently, his season slash line is still an underwhelming .256/.276/.370 with a 70 wRC+.
It wasn’t a secret that the 21-year old Devers was going to struggle defensively. Defense was never his calling card, so some poor production was expected. However, his issues at the plate are far more concerning. Again, he’s only 21, so 2018 was destined to have its highs and lows. However, the lows weren’t supposed to be this low. Red Sox Unfiltered’s own Patrick Green already broke down Devers’ offensive struggles, but suffice to say that production this poor wasn’t expected from the young player.
Holt rounds out the depth chart, and the longtime utility infielder is actually having a decent season. Through 113 plate appearances, Holt owns a .303/.381/.444 slash line to go along with a 125 wRC+. On paper, he’s the best hitter of the bunch, but playing him too frequently may not be the best choice.
Holt has shown in the past that his body breaks down when asked to be an everyday player. He’s suffered multiple concussions throughout his career, and his career splits between the first and second half of every season are staggering.
During his career, Holt posts a .295/.362/.418 slash line with a 114 wRC+ in the first half of a season. In the second half, those numbers drop to .238/.300/.310 with a wRC+ of 66. This drop-off is most likely caused by the fatigue of a long season. In years past, Holt has seen a significant amount of playing time at a variety of positions. Perhaps the best way to keep Holt productive is to limit his appearances.
Andrew Benintendi and JD Martinez are two of the best players in baseball, and the Sox just got Mookie Betts back. These three aren’t a problem, but the fourth position is. Somebody needs to play the other outfield position, and somebody needs to DH. Right now, the solutions aren’t great.
Jackie Bradley Jr. is the everyday center fielder, and he’s something of a mixed bag. While his defense is extraordinary, he’s having the worst season of his career at the plate. Through Sunday’s action, Bradley is currently batting just .193 with a .304 slugging percentage and a 65 wRC+. While his defense helps minimize the damage of his lackluster offense, he’s still been a liability in the lineup.
The other outfield options are usually Holt or Blake Swihart. We’ve already talked about Holt’s production, but Swihart struggles are historically bad. Currently, the super utility player is posting an abhorrent .156/.229/.188 slash line to go along with a 12 wRC+. This means he’s 88% worse than the average major league hitter. Of batters with at least 50 plate appearances, only five have a lower wRC+ than Swihart.
While the position has relatively started to heat up, the tag-team backstop of Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez leave a lot to be desired. Both are above average defensively (although Vazquez has been playing below his usual level), but both haven’t done much at the plate.
Vazquez is hitting .206/.255/.284 with a 44 wRC+, while Leon owns a .244/.286/.360 slash line and a 73 wRC+. While Leon’s numbers aren’t quite as bad as Vazquez, neither guy is performing that well. Vazquez and Leon have a combined -0.3 WAR. Obviously, this is not ideal.
Now that we’ve addressed the struggling positions and the players who comprise them, what should the Red Sox do to address these needs? Dave Dombrowski typically is a trade-happy general manager, but he hasn’t made a trade yet this year. There are no signs of an imminent trade, so let’s assume that this will be the core moving forward. There will probably be a trade closer to the deadline, but that’s still over a month away.
The Infield Solution
All of Devers, Holt, and Nunez have their clear weakness. Nunez has the lowest ceiling, Holt wears down as the year goes on, and Devers has the highest ceiling and lowest floor. So how should the Red Sox divvy up the playing time between these three?
The best solution is to keep all three on a constant rotation. As previously mentioned, Boston has used Devers as their everyday third baseman and Nunez as the everyday second baseman. The Red Sox should probably reassess that plan, having Devers, Holt, and Nunez all start an equal amount of games.
Nunez is actually a better defensive third baseman than second, so it’s not like there’s a defensive drop off when Devers doesn’t play. Devers is just 21, so there’s no real reason to worry about this rough skid sticking around forever. However, less playing time would probably benefit the young third baseman.
Until Devers starts to work his way out of his funk, the Sox should implement a platoon. However, once Devers gets his swing back (and he will), Devers should be the everyday third baseman. Of course, once Dustin Pedroia returns, he should be the primary starter, with Nunez and Holt starting every fourth or fifth game.
The Outfield Solution
In this scenario, Holt regularly starts at second base, and thus wouldn’t be available to play in the outfield. With or without Holt, the best outfield involves JD Martinez at DH and Jackie Bradley Jr. in the outfield.
Yes, Jackie struggles at the plate, but there really isn’t a better option. Swihart is even worse with the bat, and isn’t nearly the fielder Bradley is. With Mookie Betts off the disabled list, Swihart can return to being a bench piece. As long as Mookie, Benintendi, and Martinez are healthy, the Red Sox can afford to have a poor bat in the outfield. Bradley should clearly be the fourth outfielder, and the everyday center fielder.
The Catcher Solution
Barring a trade, there really isn’t a great solution here. Vazquez and Leon are both underwhelming options and are somewhat interchangeable. Both are capable of being average hitters for stretches, but neither has shown an ability to sustain that.
The only other catcher on the roster is Blake Swihart, who’s clearly the worst option of the three. Swihart is the worst defensive catcher by far, so he’d need his bat to see any type of playing time. As previously stated, his bat is not only the worst on the team, it’s one of the worst in the league.
Swihart rose through the minors as a bat-first prospect, so there is some hope that he can find that old swing. However, he hasn’t had it in 2018. Even with the injuries, Swihart’s facing an uphill battle to see the field.
The best they can do?
Quite frankly, there’s not a lot of good options with the roster as banged up as it is. However, changes need to be made to maximize the potential of the depth. Brock Holt needs to see more time at second, and Rafael Devers needs to be more of a platoon player.
While there isn’t much that can be done for the catchers, the outfield can improve by utilizing an every game outfielder of Benintendi, Bradley, and Betts, with Martinez at DH. Blake Swihart isn’t nearly good enough defensively or offensively to keep seeing the field, and his poor production is actively costing the team runs.
While it’s not a perfect lineup by any means, it’s the best the Red Sox can do. The lineup will fix itself in a sense when Pedroia comes back and Devers adjusts to major league pitching. However, until then, this is the best they can do. Let’s hope it’s good enough.