For a team that's being built on the ashes of a season like 2015, there seem to be a lot of sure things for the 2016 Red Sox.
Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts are obviously going be starters in 2016, and likely well beyond. David Ortiz, unless he makes the unlikely decision to go out on the high note of 500 homers and a productive year at the plate, will be back as well. Dustin Pedroia is the man at second, Blake Swihart the future behind the plate, and given how they've played in the second half, Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley Jr. will occupy the other two outfield spots.
For better or worse, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval are also very likely to start 2016 on the roster. It's going to be awfully difficult to find a trade partner for either at this point, and given their success in the not-too-distant past, there's too much potential value there for the Sox to just give up on either man completely.
That leaves all of zero spots available in the starting lineup (Swihart, Ramirez, Pedroia, Bogaerts, Sandoval, Castillo, Betts, Bradley, Ortiz for those not paying attention--not, of course, in order), and two names I haven't mentioned yet: Brock Holt, and Travis Shaw.
For Holt, the story of 2015 is a familiar one. A strong start, and a weak finish. On June 21, Holt was hitting .318/.407/.486. Even as late as the end of the first half, he was up at .292/.379/.412. As in 2014, he had emerged as one of the only productive bats on a struggling Red Sox team, and once again made fans wonder if they had a surprising young star on their hands.
Holt started the second half with a 4-for-26 run in his first eight games. Since then, he's had a few bursts of success--a good week towards the end of July, another in the middle of August--but has generally struggled at the plate. Even if you cut out the aforementioned slow start, he's hitting .272/.318/.346 in the second half. Leave it in, and that line dips to .255/.295/.323.
For Shaw, the numbers still look good. Over the full season, he's hitting .275/.327/.530. Including only his most recent call-up, that jumps up to .284/.336/.567. That's good--great, even! But it's also a number that's come down of late. Granted, it was always going to happen given how strong Shaw started, but a .748 OPS with a sub-.300 OBP in September isn't exactly awe-inspiring. For a player like David Ortiz, a rough couple weeks is easily ignored, but Shaw is coming from a different place. His hype is a tower of toothpicks held together by chewing gum coming, as it does, after a lengthy career in the minors of little real note. A sudden slide into obscurity is what's expected, and so any red flags, even coming in as short a span as this, are given serious weight.
Honestly, though, that dip doesn't really mean much for Travis Shaw. He was never going to be the Opening Day starter in 2016. For a team with fewer resources and one less Ramirez than the Red Sox have, perhaps. But the Sox have Hanley, and even if they don't, would probably prefer not to place too many of their hopes on a 25-year-old with two months of major league experience and zero appearances on top-100 prospect lists.
Photo Credit: Kim Klement
But, if Shaw is not a starter, he's also risen above the level of roster dross. He shouldn't be in line to be designated for assignment to free up a 40-man spot for a prospect in need of protection. He also shouldn't be sold to anyone willing to throw some low-level lottery ticket at the Red Sox. If some team out there fully buys into Shaw's late-season production and wants to pay a legitimate bounty for it, then of course Dave Dombrowski should jump on that. But they won't. Other teams know just as well as the Red Sox that Shaw is likely not nearly this good.
If Shaw's expected value is low, though, the upper bound on it has to be considered awfully high given the way he's played in 2015, and the opportunity cost for the Red Sox is minimal, thanks in no small part to Brock Holt. If Holt has once again worked himself out of the conversation for a starting role, he is still a very useful super-utility man, and perhaps one that can even become something greater if his second half slides can be improved through better conditioning or added experience.
For now, though, he's the man who backs up every position but catcher, and that leaves Shaw free to be a defensively-restricted bench bat in 2016. Maybe he only backs up Hanley Ramirez (or, if the Red Sox do find a way out of that, Ramirez' replacement) at first. Maybe he tosses in a few games at third, or even in Fenway's left field. It's a tough position to be in, with irregular playing time making Shaw's already long odds even longer still. But the time will come when Hanley or Sandoval or someone else ends up on the disabled list, and Shaw will have his opportunity to show what he can do when given the at bats.
And honestly, there's no better use for the bench. Teams are given only so many roster spots to work with. Nine of those have to go to the starting lineup, five more to the rotation, and seven (or sometimes eight) to the bullpen. Even for an American League team, there's some value to filling those few spots left with players who complement some of the starting players' weaknesses. Having a platoon bat like Jonny Gomes to take a key at bat in the ninth against a lefty, for instance, is certainly worth consideration. But by definition these bench players were deemed not good enough to be starters, and so when they're forced into larger roles by injury or underperformance, they don't end up passing muster.
Admittedly, I did just get done saying deeming neither Shaw nor Holt to be good enough to be starters. But for them the deciding factor is uncertainty rather than inability. When the time comes for them to step up into those larger roles, if they shine, then the Red Sox will be much better off than they would have been with the usual fill-in types. If they don't, then the players they kept off the roster are the sort that are easily picked up at the trade deadline if absolutely necessary. The Red Sox get their shot, however long, at finding the young talent that's so difficult to pick up in free agency without taking the risk of going all-in on players with limited track records of success.