The Red Sox have relatively little work to do when it comes to putting together the 2017 team. The rotation is already six men deep if they choose to bring back Clay Buchholz. The outfield is completely set. Blake Swihart, Sandy Leon, and Christian Vazquez will probably be enough to keep them out of the catching market. Xander and Pedroia are obviously locked in. And while the bullpen is going to need a boost, a fair bit of that could come from retaining someone like Brad Ziegler and the eventual return of Carson Smith. They’ve also got a few interesting options there who are already likely to start the year in Pawtucket.
The obvious holes are at the corner infield positions. David Ortiz is gone, and while he played neither first nor third, Hanley Ramirez is the only guy on the roster who could easily slot in as a respectable DH without completely wasting a glove in the process. As such, and given that the biggest bats tend to be first base types to begin with, the Sox are basically out one corner infielder.
Beyond that, though, the other, unnamed corner infielder is Travis Shaw. Shaw hit to an 88 OPS+ in 2016, went completely quiet in the second half, and now has even dragged his career line below league average despite his torrid start in 2015. It is, in short, pretty hard to believe in him at this point. They almost certainly need to add at least one player at either first or third. But it’s probably fair to say they need to answer two positions.
There are outside options. The obvious one is Edwin Encarnacion, who the Sox have been heavily linked to even before free agency. Justin Turner had a strange year, but proved he can put together a full season of really strong play at the hot corner. Old friend Mike Napoli will be a free agent coming off a reasonable year with Cleveland, though that reunion seems a bit unlikely. There’s even some lower-budget options like Steve Pearce, Luis Valbuena, and Brandon Moss, though I’d bet they’re not high on anyone’s list.
But the Sox aren’t necessarily going to solve all their problems with free agency, and looking at the rosters in both Boston and Pawtucket, it seems entirely likely that they’ll let that second infield spot sort itself out internally. After all, there’s plenty of guys in line.
Travis Shaw: Where Jackie Bradley Jr. lived up to his 2015 performance, Travis Shaw didn’t come all that close. But a bad sophomore season does not completely doom the man. We’ve certainly seen plenty of guys struggle in Shaw’s position. Some of them, like Xander Bogaerts and, in a way, Bradley himself went very cold after hot starts (assuming you give Bradley credit for that spring training tear) and then found their way back. Others, like, say, Will Middlebrooks, simply vanished. The Sox are not obligated to give Shaw another shot at the job, but he did show tremendous power when he connected, even late in the year. There are desirable tools there. It’s just a question of how much more time they’re willing to give him to make those work out.
Pablo Sandoval: Hey, yes, he exists! No, no, I no you’ve tried to forget. I’ve tried to forget too. But Pablo Sandoval exists and, for better or worse, is under contract for another few years.
He’s shown us nothing since May 2015 to suggest there’s any of the old Sandoval left in there. But crazier things have happened. We saw Hanley Ramirez get his career back on tract in 2016. We’ve seen John Lackey go from worst season ever to surgery to a huge contributor on a World Series team. Hell, Sandoval’s story almost follows that too perfectly. We all assumed he’d just fade away after hitting the DL, but there he was hanging around the team late in the season, and in better shape than we’d ever seen him in a Red Sox uniform—low bar though that may be.
At this point, it seems like Sandoval will get his chance again. It might not be much of one, but if he’s made it this far, he’ll probably make it to 2017, too.
Yoan Moncada: So Moncada was called up too early. No surprise there. That he was quite so awful (oh so many strikeouts) wasn’t entirely expected, but Moncada would’ve been exceeding expectations if he’d actually been good or even average having been called up straight from Double-A high K-rate and all.
How early, though, is in question. A lot can change over an offseason, particularly when that offseason is spent in part in the Arizona Fall League. Moncada’s still had strikeout troubles there, and ended up hurting his thumb, but he’s still been getting his offense in. That should set him up to hit the ground running in Triple-A, and while the Sox will hardly be comfortable handing him the keys to start 2017, success in Pawtucket should establish him as an exciting first line of defense against injury or underperformance in Boston.
Rafael Devers: I’ll take this moment after Moncada to mention the name I’m sure Moncada will bring to mind for many. But Devers is almost certainly not going to happen. He’ll turn 21 sometime around the World Series, and hasn’t even played in Portland yet. Even taking into account Devers’ late surge in 2016 and Andrew Benintendi’s meteoric rise, there are 100:1 odds against Devers really pushing his way into the picture ahead of 2018.
Sam Travis: Remember him? Travis wasn’t off to the hottest start in Pawtucket before he tore his ACL, but he at least holding his own despite being pushed a little after a strong AFL performance. He still ranks pretty high up in Boston’s farm system, and if the injury will keep him out of top-100 lists, he was right on the border there before 2016.
Travis is in a bit of an awkward situation in that he’s generally been pegged as first-base only, and if the Sox choose to go the most likely route with Edwin Encarnacion, both first and DH will be filled. But if they instead find someone who can play third, then Travis is suddenly very much in the conversation as an early-career Youkilis type of bat. And hell, it’s not like Shaw was viewed as a third baseman before he started playing there. Travis could end up making that shift too, though coming off a torn ACL makes that scenario a bit more far-fetched.
Brock Holt: Let’s...not do this again. Holt is a valuable super-utility player, and will inevitably get mixed into this situation if the Sox roll the dice on the likes of Shaw and Sandoval and come up empty. But at no point should the Sox look at Holt starting at third and say “our work here is done.” Not based on the information we have. He’s just not a starter.
Marco Hernandez: We’re getting into pretty unlikely territory now, but these guys deserve mention too. Marco Hernandez has quietly been putting together a strong resume with the Red Sox. The PTBNL who came back for Felix Doubront after 2014, Hernandez put together a strong campaign in Double-A last year, far exceeding anything he’d done outside of rookie ball with the Cubs, then held his own in Pawtucket this year and even hit .294/.357/.373 in limited, inconsistent time with the Red Sox.
Obviously, there’s sample caveats there, and even with a .357 OBP that line translates to a 93 OPS+. Hernandez also had awful defensive numbers in such a short frame of time that it drove his WAR total down into negative territory. But he’s never been seen as a bad defender, and these are metrics which had JBJ well in the hole to start the season. If some 50 plate appearances aren’t enough to really give you a meaningful offensive measurement, some 100 innings are about as predictive as guessing based on his name and favorite color.
If Hernandez sees much time as a starter in 2017, things are more likely to have gone very wrong for the Sox than very right for Hernandez. But just having that guy who can play a decent third and be something other than a total black hole in the ninth spot can be enough to help push the Red Sox towards trying their luck with their other options early on rather than going out of their way to find an answer.
Mauricio Dubon: Dubon is probably the player least likely to see time in Boston in 2017 (excepting Devers), but also one of the more interesting names involved. He suffered the ill fortune of following Benintendi and Moncada around this season, making him second-or-third fiddle at pretty much all points, but Dubon might well be the biggest breakout prospect in Boston’s system last year. He was deceptively good in Salem—a .766 OPS doesn’t jump out, but a .387 OBP certainly does—and when Double-A pitchers forced him to do more than just take, take, take, he very much did. Dubon not only showed excellent contact skills even as he reached the land of advanced secondary pitches that is Double-A, but even emerged as an extra-base threat with 20 doubles, six triples, and six homers in Portland.
I keep going back to Mookie Betts (and then immediately cautioning against taking that comparison too far) when looking at Dubon’s performance. He, too, showed plenty of ability to take balls. He, too, exploded at the next level when he showed he could also hit strikes. Dubon is never going to hit 30 homers, and he’s yet to put together both free and extra bases at the same level (except maybe 2015 in Greenville...but in lesser amounts). But a .339/.374/.538 OPS in Portland as a solid defender who can play at second, short, and third is pretty damn good.
The problem for Dubon in 2017, assuming that he can keep it up in Pawtucket (his AFL performance hasn’t been great, though it’s also just eight games), will be the number of guys between him and the majors. Simply being good won’t cut it. Dubon is going to need to completely force the issue to leapfrog Travis and Hernandez, much less Moncada. That means matching or beating his Portland performance. Even accepting that Dubon’s season was more breakout than fluke (and I do believe that’s the case), expecting him to be .912 OPS good after a promotion is a bit much.
Still, unlike Hernandez, if Dubon ends up starting, it’s more likely to be a very good thing for the Red Sox than a very bad thing. It’s hard to call anyone but Moncada the Benintendi of the bunch, but if you’re looking for your surprise second-half hero at third base, you could find a worse option to put your money on than Dubon.
So that’s a lot of names, and thus, a lot of insurance and reason for the Red Sox to only go out and fill one of those empty corner infield slots. No, Travis Shaw probably won’t be the answer. Yes, it’s awfully hard to trust Pablo Sandoval. Any of these guys might individually have a low chance of making it work.
But the 2016 Red Sox were just fine despite dealing with holes at plenty of positions throughout the season. They had two starting pitchers for months, no left fielder for a while, lots of ugliness behind the plate, etc. Ideally you go into the season with every position 100% figured out, but it’s no disaster to have to carry a position or two through the early months so long as the options are there to make it more likely than not that there’s at least an acceptable starter should the team make the postseason.
That’s pretty much what the Sox have: enough options that they’ll probably get there eventually, even if third doesn’t end up a position of strength. That, of course, might well change over the offseason, whether because the Sox ship options elsewhere, or because they bring someone in who solidifies the situation before the first pitch is thrown. They’ll definitely want at least the one addition to “replace” David Ortiz, but after that, it feels like there’s too many internal solutions too close to the majors to justify anything more.