Back in spring training, there weren't many battles going on in camp. There was one in center field that no one expected between Grady Sizemore and Jackie Bradley, and that grabbed all the headlines. The other one was much smaller, pitting Jonathan Herrera against Brock Holt in a fight for the utility man role. I wrote this about it at the time, as I have a strange obsession with the fringes of the roster. Now, less than a month into the season, the Red Sox find themselves in a similar position. After the failed Ryan Roberts experiment, both men are on the active roster, but only one can remain when Will Middlebrooks returns, which should happen in the next week or so.
After coming over from the Rockies in exchange for Franklin Morales this winter, Herrera has failed to instill much confidence in his short time with Boston. Thus far he has hit just .214/.313/.214 (54 wRC+), though keep in mind it's been only 33 plate appearances. With that being said, it's tough to deny he's looked a bit lost at the plate. He already nine strikeouts, and his K-rate sits 12 percentage points higher than his full-season career high. While he's walked more than he has in the recent past, the strikeouts combined with the complete lack of extra base hits has made for a rough first impression for the 29-year-old in Boston.
Holt's start to the 2014 season has been the polar opposite. After losing the battle out of spring training, he headed to Pawtucket and proceeded to tear the cover off the ball. He accrued 56 plate appearances with the Paw Sox, and put up a stellar .380/.446/.600 batting line, good for a 198 wRC+. He was called up for about five minutes before the Roberts signing was announced, and seemed to use that as even more motivation. After his performance, combined with Roberts' complete disaster of a stint, he was recalled and actually allowed to participate in some games. So far, it's been smooth sailing as he's got seven hits, including a triple, and three runs in his first five games, with a .389/.400/.500 line.
Since coming up, Holt has gotten the call in John Farrell's lineup, even spending some time in the leadoff spot. Before this, Herrera had been platooning with Roberts. It's interesting that Holt has taken all of the starts, since he hits from the left side, which is the switch-hitting Herrera's stronger side. Though Holt is just 25, him playing every day isn't as much as a concern as it would be with many other young players. He's a promising player who likely has a major-league future, but he's not a "real prospect" like a Garin Cecchini or Mookie Betts. Continuing his development by playing him everyday isn't really a concern, especially not one that takes precedent over helping the team. In short, that wouldn't really be the reason to keep Herrera when Middlebrooks takes back his everyday role.
Instead, it comes back to their defensive versatility and the needs of the team. While Holt has played a lot of shortstop in his professional career, he profiles as more of a second baseman, and certainly doesn't have the defensive pedigree of Herrera. While the latter has struggled at the plate, he is clearly the better player with the glove. Looking at the roster, having someone who can play shortstop is much more important. Not only is Dustin Pedroia unlikely to miss a handful of games at the most, but Xander Bogaerts is going to need a decent amount of breathers as a rookie playing in his first full MLB season. On top of that, he's had shown some shaky defense at shortstop, so having someone who is better defensively at that position who can come in late in close games could make more sense.
In the end, there are pros and cons for both sides. Jonathan Herrera is the safer choice, with defensive pedigree and experience in general on his side. Brock Holt has the upside, offense and "sparkplug" potential going for him. However, the former is far from an offensive juggernaut, and the latter isn't great on defense, and his best position is the one that is least needed in the context of this roster. At the moment, I'd still guess that Herrera retains his spot, just because of his fit with way the roster is currently put together. With the way he's playing, though, Holt is making it extremely tough to send him back down. The roster crunch upon Shane Victorino's return will take the headlines, but the Red Sox have a decision on their hands with Middlebrooks' return as well.