Opinion

The Red Sox need a stronger bench

The Red Sox could benefit from a better bench

Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (Sept. 18, 2017 – Source: Rob Carr/Getty Images North America)

In the midst of a seemingly uncompromising impasse between the Boston Red Sox and J.D. Martinez, the news broke Tuesday night that, a week into February, the free agent slugger has become “fed up” with the Boston Red Sox’ inflexibility in negotiations. He went on to say he would prefer to sign with another team at this juncture.

All off-season it has appeared J.D. Martinez to the Red Sox was a foregone conclusion, a “when rather than if” mantra proliferating throughout the baseball community.

While this recent revelation should certainly alter that position, I am not sure to what degree. For all we know this could just be a strategy employed by agent Scott Boras to create sense of urgency on the Red Sox’ part. Further, the market for Martinez’ services does not seem very vast, considering his price tag.

For the sake of a kind of fun hypothetical, though, let’s pretend J.D. is done with the Red Sox. What does Boston do then? They still have a conspicuous power deficiency, which, according to the convenient narrative, was the reason the team “underperformed” in 2017. They probably do need more power, if they want to maximize their contention window, but this can be achieved through cheaper means, while simaltaneously addressing another glaring need: positional player depth.

The Red Sox are probably in no hurry to address their depth issue, given that 24 of 50 of the top 50 free agents, according to Fangraphs, remain on the market. With that said, this is a team that could benefit from spreading out the, let’s call it $25 million, they were going to pay Martinez in ’18 and get some fine depth pieces, who more resemble fringe or slightly above-average starting position players.

Currently, Roster Resources gives the Red Sox the bench for ’18: Brock Holt, Blake Swihart, Devin Marrero and Bryce Brentz. That does not even take into account Marco Hernandez projecting to take over second base until Dustin Pedroia returns later in the season.

Starting with Holt, who admittedly was dealing with vertigo/concussion issues in ’17, we have a utility guy who posted a -0.9 fWAR last year to go along with a 51 wRC+ (100 is league average). In other words, he batted .200 with 0 home runs in 164 plate appearances. If you want to totally write this season off as a circumstantial fluke, then we can look back at his 2016 season where he posted a 0.2 fWAR in 324 plate appearances. The attachment Red Sox fans have with him is understandable. He has earned the perception of a gritty, selfless player, who wasn’t supposed to amount to much but became an All-Star in 2015. The fans adore him, yet, removing emotion from the equation, it is questionable if he is worth a spot on the club.

Moving to Blake Swihart, we have a catcher/outfielder who is out of minor-league options. If he were not to make the big-league club, it is plausible to assume another club would snatch the 25-year-old. For a player of once high prospect pedigree, this is not a satisfying option and he may be just as talented as Sandy Leon, another backup catcher option. With that said, one cannot ignore his obvious struggles in Triple-A last season, where he posted an abysmal .190/.246/.292 line in 212 plate appearances, and his unfortunate run-ins with various injuries. He does not profile as an above-average bench piece by any means, projected for a -0.1 fWAR according to Steamer, and seems more of a bet on dubious, untapped potential.

Deven Marrero is a great defensive asset but his offense is something left to be desired. When I saw him play with Pawtucket mid-2017, he was batting 9th. His 51 wRC+ last season matched Brock Holt’s, the 14th-worst mark among players with at least 150 plate appearances. His Triple-A wRC+ was 67 in 194 plate appearances last year and 37 in 388 plate appearances at the same level in 2016. He’s nothing more than a late-inning defensive replacement.

Lastly, we have Bryce Brentz, the fourth outfielder, as of now, who is supposed to replace the negligible value Chris Young provided the team in 2017. The right-handed hitter mashed Triple-A competition last year, belting 31 home runs in close to 500 trips to the plate. He had a great offensive year after two close to average offensive seasons facing the same competition in ’16 and ’15 respectively. With that said, his defense profiles as below-average and, at 29 years of age, does not have much potential growth in that department. Steamer projects him to be worth a 0.0 fWAR in 184 appearances in 2018.

All told, Steamer has the four contributing a -0.1 fWAR to the team in 2018. Meanwhile, the apparently Opening Day second baseman for the Red Sox, Marco Hernandez, has been worth -0.2 fWAR in his career and is anticipated to add 0.1 fWAR to the team, per Steamer.

Other bench options include: the aforementioned Sandy Leon, Oscar Hernandez, Steve Selsky, Tzu-Wei-Lin, Rusney Castillo and Sam Travis. Travis could be an interesting option, but, without getting into too much detail, listing those guys should strengthen the hypothesis the Red Sox do not have viable depth options.

Players get injured and/or underperform. It’s inevitable. Teams benefit from having quality alternatives. For example, we saw the Red Sox struggle mightily trying to find a replacement for Pablo Sandoval for a large part of 2017, until they pushed the timetable on Rafael Devers‘ inevitable ascent to the majors.

As of now, Boston bench is mediocre, from a pure positional player standpoint. Pitching depth, or lack thereof, is a whole other story.

The addition of J.D. Martinez could have pushed Mitch Moreland or Hanley Ramirez to occupy a bench spot, strengthening the club’s depth, but there are ways to achieve this without him, obviously.

They could go out and sign Logan Morrison or Lucas Duda, who I wrote about earlier this offseason, to platoon with HanRam. Either of them would add a dimension of power to the Red Sox, even if it is quite not the same level as Martinez. They would certainly cost less. According to Fangraphs’ crowdsourced estimates, Morrison would land roughly a two-year, $25 million contract and Duda a two-year, $17 million. This is a far-cry from the $100+ million Martinez desires and does not even take into account the fact we are close to February, meaning they would probably cost less with Spring Training rapidly approaching.

If they sign one of these cheaper alternatives, they should have more money available to address other areas of depth. Maybe they could re-sign Eduardo Nunez, projected for a three-year, $33 million contract, and have him cover for Pedroia’s absence in the beginning of the season. Pedroia has not been the beacon of health in recent season and a decent contingency plan should be a priority. Add to the fact Devers is still unproven, I can envision Nunez playing all over the field and accumulating more than his fair share of plate appearances. He could also get more at bats with Martinez no longer hypothetically locked in at designated hitters. The Red Sox reportedly have interest in him, along with the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays.

Maybe this also frees up room for them to pursue a fourth outfielder, say, a power guy like a Carlos Gonzalez or Jose Bautista, hoping for a resurgence. If they wish to be more conservative in terms of potential power, players like Jon Jay, Carlos Gomez and Jarrod Dyson also remain available and probably for a cheap, one or two-year deal.

They don’t need a star power-hitter to keep them afloat in the American League East. Currently, they are projected for 92 wins over at Fangraphs, narrowly edging the New York Yankees with their 91 win projection. If they go this route, their future financial commitments are lighter and they would not be relying on a sole player to fix their power weakness.

According to ZIPS projections, Morrison should be good for a 2.0 fWAR in 516 plate appearances next year and Eduardo Nunez a 1.8 fWAR in 494 plate appearances. Meanwhile, J.D. Martinez was given a 3.3 fWAR in 548 plate appearances. His projected wRC+ of 133 is not far off from Morrison’s 126 wRC+ either.

They don’t need Martinez to hit better in 2018 nor do they need him to have a better team.  Depth can substitute his hypothetical presence, for a fraction of the total cost.

To reiterate, here’s the Boston Red Sox current projected bench:

  • Brock Holt IF/OF
  • Blake Swihart OF/C
  • Deven Marrero IF
  • Bryce Brentz OF

Now, here’s a different, improved bench to start the ’18 season:

  • Brock Holt or Marco Hernandez IF/OF
  • Hanley Ramirez IF/DH
  • Carlos González OF
  • Blake Swihart OF/C

Sounds a lot better, huh? This bench would be made by possible by the addition of Logan Morrison to be the primary first basemen/designated hitter, moving Hanley to a bench role. Nobody wants Ramirez to get the necessary plate appearances to exercise his way-too-costly 2019 vesting option, anyway. He could, however, provide tremendous pop from the bench.

Brock Holt or Marco Hernandez stays on the bench, for now, because Pedroia will miss the start of the season, where Eduardo Nunez can be the starting second basemen until he returns.

Carlos Gonzalez has tremendous power potential, improving late in the year where, if one squints hard enough, they can extract value out of his bat as a bench piece. He would   likely be a safer option than Brentz, while also having a much higher ceiling.

This exercise was purely out of entertainment. They do not have to sign LoMo or Nunez or Cargo, but, if they did, it wouldn’t be a bad idea.

What this was really supposed to show was the fact Boston needs depth and pursuing it over J.D. Martinez might not be a bad alternative.

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