When Chris Carter finished the season as the NL leader with 41 homers, he probably expected to earn a handsome payday in his second year of arbitration. Instead, he was non-tendered by the Brewers yesterday to make way for Eric Thames, who had an extraordinary 2016...in Korea.
Carter is a pretty interesting player, as close to the definition of a three true outcomes player as the league has seen in a long while. Last year, in 644 plate appearances, a full half (plus one) ended in a strikeout, walk, or home run. For his career, Carter holds a 112 wRC+ built on a .219 batting average.
It’s the former number that makes Carter an interesting twist in Boston’s ongoing search for a designated hitter, particularly when you start to consider what he might cost. Carter was, after all, just non-tendered by a team that decided he wasn’t worth the $10 million or so he was likely due to receive in arbitration. Technically teams aren’t required to stick to that number, but it’s easy to see his market ending up somewhere around that level, and coming in on short years so that he can hit free agency again while still in or around his prime. If this isn’t set to be his big payday—and it’s difficult to imagine it will be given how he entered the market in the first place—it makes sense for Carter to want to find a team that will give him some big dollars and a friendly environment to show that he’s worth more next winter or the year after that.
The Red Sox, of course, fit that bill perfectly. They also happen to have room for a big bat, and would love to have said bat come on a short deal.
We should acknowledge what Carter is not. He is not anything close to a David Ortiz replacement. Barring a major trade for a Miguel Cabrera or Joey Votto (both being extremely unlikely), the best they can do in that department is Edwin Encarnacion, and all signs point to the Sox having no interest in committing the years and dollars it would take to land him. Carter comes in well short of Encarnacion offensively, going toe-to-toe with him on raw power, but held back significantly by his struggles making contact.
Carter is also not quite as good as Carlos Beltran has been over the last couple years. If Beltran could reliably produce another season like 2016, the Red Sox would be ill-advised to go after Carter in his place.
But where Carter lacks the sheer quality of Encarnacion and Beltran, he also lacks their price and uncertainty, respectively. While Carter’s profile doesn’t exactly scream “reliable,” he’s now over 2,600 plate appearances into his career, and has shown the ability to keep his production steadily above average even with all the strikeouts. That’s a lot more reliable than pretty much anything a player Beltran’s age can offer. It does matter how a player gets to their numbers, but not as much for a 29-year-old signing a short-term deal.
I don’t think Carter is a perfect fit. This Red Sox lineup would prefer a more well-rounded bat given that their lineup is deep enough that the next good batter should never be that far off. That makes Carter’s ability to empty the bases either with a home run or a third out a bit less valuable than the guy who is more proficient at simply avoiding the out any way possible. He’s also not terribly likely to get much of a Fenway boost, as his fly balls tend to find gloves in center and right field. When Carter pulls a ball, it tends to be on a line or out of the park, which could even turn some of his many homers into doubles off the wall. Also, while this is true for pretty much all the options, Carter would provide nothing positionally. While he’s played first and some outfield, it’s pretty much always going to be a mistake to put him in the field.
That being said, if the Sox want to be sure they at least have a decent-to-good bat at DH without having to worry about an age-based collapse or an albatross contract in a few years’ time, Chris Carter is actually a pretty good compromise between security and affordability. Hell, he might well even be cheaper than Beltran, which would make this not a compromise at all.
It’s an interesting twist that’s been thrown into this hunt for a DH by the Brewers. And while there’s certainly no guarantee it actually makes any difference for the Red Sox, having an extra option available certainly can’t hurt.