Trevor Plouffe, rumored to be a bench target for the Boston Red Sox, has signed a one-year deal with the Oakland Atheltics.
Earlier in the offseason, when the Cleveland Indians landed Edwin Encarnacion on a surprisingly short contract, much was made by some of the local media about the Red Sox “missing out” on the guy who had the best chance to actually replace David Ortiz at DH, rather than just taking his at bats.
As I saw it, though, that free agency saga had way too much going on to really condemn the Red Sox for any inaction. Between the team’s tax figure, the new CBA rules, a big free agency class on the horizon, and the deceptively low value of any but the most productive bats at DH (even David Ortiz’ insane 2016 was only worth 4.4 fWAR, and Encarnacion has never hit like Ortiz did last year) it’s easy to understand how the Red Sox might not think dropping a bunch of money on Encarnacion was a good idea, even if you personally might disagree.
For my money, Trevor Plouffe, at least for now, should stand out as the one who got away this offseason. Certainly more than Encarnacion.
It might sound a bit silly to say. After all, Plouffe hardly seems like a commodity at all, especially coming off of his 2016 season where he was actually below replacement level. But what a player brings to the table can only really be evaluated in the context of the other options. No, Plouffe is no star, but nobody who fills that last bench spot for the Red Sox after Young, Holt, and [insert catcher here] is going to be.
What Plouffe is is almost strictly better than the competition, because the competition is so low. Realistically, the players whose roster spot he’d be taking right now is Josh Rutledge. Marco Hernandez is also in play for the roster spot, but given that Rutledge has to be kept in the majors or sent back to the Rockies, he’s the obvious choice to start.
In fairness to Rutledge, he was better than Plouffe in 2016 thanks in large part to a .433 BABIP. But unlike Plouffe, who was actually a very solid starter in recent years, there’s no real reason to believe that Rutledge can ever actually rise above that, and every reason to expect he will fall well below it if given time to play in 2017.
The only argument for Rutledge that I have seen amounts to this: despite a career line of .255/.307/.414 against left-handed pitchers (good for an 80 wRC+), he’s been much better against them of late. That’s a very important split for a player whose time will likely come spelling Pablo Sandoval against lefties—that’s basically the role that roster spot is reserved for. And it’s true that the split has been improving for Rutledge of late. But it’s also true that “of late” comprises 135 plate appearances from 2014-2016, which is far too few to give him any real credit for being even an average hitter against lefties in the face of his career numbers. Few are the players with any decent amount of plate appearances who haven’t put together 100 good ones, especially when gifted with a .412 BABIP in that time.
Much more convincing is Plouffe’s career line of .268/.344/.465 against lefties—good for a 121 wRC+—over the course of 700 plate appearances. Even in 2016, an ugly year hampered by injuries, Plouffe was able to hit better than league-average against them despite a .269 BABIP. Barring a sudden and dramatic decline even beyond what he showed last year while hurt, Plouffe would have been a fairly reliable bet to give the Red Sox what they were looking for from that roster spot, and could even have proven vital insurance against another Sandoval disaster year if healthy.
Instead, the Red Sox have little real hope for third base outside of the new and hopefully improved Sandoval. And even with him, it’s hard to really expect the third baseman will suddenly learn to hit lefties after struggling against them his entire career.
And this brings us back to price. With Encarnacion, that was a major factor that made it hard for me to really say the Red Sox missed out or anything like that. With Plouffe? It’s a one-year deal said to be around $5 million by Jon Heyman. That’s the sort of contract the Red Sox could easily fit into their budget while still having room to maneuver at the trade deadline, though they seem unlikely to be dealing for any more huge deals given the current state of the farm system. That would have been a very low price to pay indeed for a player who could have made a deceptively big difference in 2016, and could hardly be considered worse than the option he would displace.
This is not to say the Red Sox screwed up, necessarily. All those Encarnacion factors are from a team perspective, but a player ultimately has to be willing to sign on the dotted line. Maybe Plouffe thinks he’s more likely to earn a starting spot in Oakland and wants to play himself into a bigger contract for 2018. Certainly Yonder Alonso seems vulnerable at first. Or maybe he just likes the Bay Area. It’s possible the only way the Red Sox were going to get him to Boston would’ve been to dump $10 million or multiple years on the table. If that’s the case, then oh well, at least they tried.
Whatever the reason, though, the Red Sox did lose out on a piece that would have perfectly filled perhaps the only true “opening” left on the roster, and for an awfully low price. Perhaps there’s still someone else out there who can play that same part, but for now, third base remains the shakiest spot on the roster, and a complete disaster area when a lefty is on the mound.