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What the Red Sox should be looking for in a DH

They can’t have David Ortiz back, so the Red Sox have to find another way to fill the gap he’s left behind.

Division Series - Cleveland Indians v Boston Red Sox - Game Three Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

There’s been a lot of attention paid to Boston’s vacant DH position around these parts. That, of course, is because the Red Sox seem to be headed for a fairly quiet offseason, with David Ortiz’ “replacement” one of the only significant moves they’re likely to make. With that in mind, I thought I’d develop a rudimentary rubric to lay out what it is the Red Sox should be looking for in a DH, that we might apply it to the candidates.

Disclaimers: There’s no order to these, and if you’ve read our stuff on the likes of Beltran and Morales a lot of it might be a bit of a retread. With that out of the way...

1 — Quality

A funny thing happened: I reached the end of this piece and realized at no point did I actually say they had to be good. So let’s just get this out of the way. At the end of the day, quality is king. That’s not to say the Sox should be going after the single best player available all else be damned, but just not being any good is clearly disqualifying.

2 — A lefty

Alright, he doesn’t actually have to be left-handed. He just has to hit right-handed pitchers. The problem here doesn’t lie in having too many right-handed hitters in the lineup, but in the players who might fill the DH role on any given day. If the Sox go out and sign another right-handed bat whose production is based heavily on hitting lefties, they’re going to struggle to find really positive options for the DH slot in most of their games.

On the other hand, if they find someone who’s good against right-handed pitchers, even if not overwhelmingly so, then they can fashion a fairly good platoon at the position with Chris Young. That takes Young out of the outfield in many games against lefties, but none of Benintendi, Bradley, or Betts have yet proven that they absolutely must be removed in those situations. Bradley’s bat doesn’t look hugely promising in those scenarios, but his glove makes up for it, and Benintendi’s sample size is far too small to be making judgments on his ability to hit lefties.

As a caveat here: as with Benintendi, don’t be basing splits on what a player did last year alone. For instance, Mark Trumbo may seem an ideal candidate based on this given his .932 OPS against RHP last year, but in the last few years that split has been much closer, and over his career it’s actually non-existent, even swinging very slightly the other way. As such, if Trumbo were to his to an .850 OPS again in 2017, it would be reasonable to expect fairly even splits rather than the overwhelming numbers vs. RHP and horrible numbers vs. LHP.

3 — Flexibility

As always, there are tradeoffs in the business of baseball. Undoubtedly the easiest answer at DH is Edwin Encarnacion. Need a big bat, see a big bat, buy a big bat. But Encarnacion would cost both dollars and years at a time when the Red Sox have a lot of both committed to plenty of players, and would like very much to commit them to some of the guys they already have around like Mookie Betts.

If it were clear that the Red Sox would need a DH for the next four or five years, then it would still make sense to push heavily (or as heavily as one can justify on a position that doesn’t play defense) for a big acquisition here. But that’s not the case. There are no few players on the rosters in Boston, Pawtucket, and Portland that stand a serious chance of filling one of the three spots between 3rd, 1st, and DH that are currently occupied by all of Hanley Ramirez. Pablo Sandoval might well be a thing in 2017. Travis Shaw is not completely dead yet. Yoan Moncada will come into the season as one of the two or three (or one) best prospects in baseball and likely be a lot more prepared to take on the MLB challenge by July than he was late in 2016. Sam Travis will be playing once more, and Rafael Devers will be looking to join him and Moncada in Pawtucket before they can break through into the majors.

There’s going to be a lot of attrition in that group. Of the names listed, Moncada and Devers are the only ones who inspire much confidence, and even then prospects can only be given so much faith. But, if it would be foolish to close the door on signing a player long-term because of prospects and pariahs, it’s at least worth putting some extra emphasis on keeping things as short-term as possible.

4 — Ceiling

With so many other options around, the Red Sox shouldn’t be putting too high a priority on reliability. There’s every chance that, between all the players listed above, the Sox will be able to find people to fill the roles of DH and 3B without being a total black hole.

As such, there’s relatively little value to adding a DH that’s very likely to hit to a .750 OPS but very unlikely to produce much better. Yeah, they might get somewhat better production from the get-go and limit the process of cycling through unimpressive options, but honestly, there’s a lot of value to the Red Sox in getting plenty of information in the first few months and even throughout the year on all the players in question. Trading production for information is often a tough sell, but knowing more about what their many players can actually bring to the table could save the Sox from making some poor decisions in the future.

Instead, the Sox would probably be better off with someone who’s a 50% chance of being great and a 50% chance of being nothing. They already have a lot of those, yes, but if they can add one that has better chances than, say, Shaw on a one-year deal, that’s more likely to improve the team the 2016 Sox eventually coalesce into. The Sox are already well-positioned to contend for a postseason spot even with DH and 3B unsettled—they’ve lost Ortiz, but the pitching should be in far better shape than it was to start 2016—and while wins in April matter just as much as wins in September, they should probably be willing to sacrifice some early production if it means having a better team late.

5 — Consistency

There’s a few players available this year who produced a ton of homers but don’t really have the sort of batting line you’d expect from someone with so many bombs. Mark Trumbo, for instance. They’ll come up and crush a pitch, then go 0-for-4 the rest of the way.

These players can still be big contributors with the bat, but they’re best in a shallower lineup. They go after the high OBP guys and ahead of the weak part of the order, cashing in on the baserunners once in a while with the understanding that, when they go down without doing anything, the opportunity cost was not terribly high.

It’s possible the Red Sox lineup does not pan out the way we might hope, which would make this less important. But as it stands, the Sox might well find themselves nine deep. And even if none of Boston’s catchers end up providing a league-average bat, nobody really stands out at third, and/or they have a bench player filling in long-term due to an injury, they’re still not likely to have the sort of empty bottom third that really take full advantage of a Trumbo-style bat. Sure, the Red Sox will always prefer a homer to a walk or a base hit, but if the lineup never really craters, then it becomes harder to ignore the negative aspects of that style of player.

This is not to say Trumbo wouldn’t be a positive addition—it feels like I’ve been using him as a negative example a bit too much. Only that it would be surprising if he was worth as much to the Red Sox as to some other team who needs a guy to homer everyone home before the zeroes in the order show up, especially if he regresses back to the sub-.300 OBP player he used to be.