The position of third base has been a bit of a revolving door for the Boston Red Sox in the last few years. In fact, dating back to the days of Mike Lowell (who retired after 2010, the same year Boston was lucky enough to employ Adrian Beltre), 35 different players have lined up at the hot corner for the Red Sox and over the last three years, three separate players have led the team in starts at third (Travis Shaw, Pablo Sandoval and Will Middlebrooks). That’s not exactly a murderer’s row of hitters, although the hope is a slimmed down Sandoval will work out this year.
Shaw started last year strong, but after posting a wRC+ of 87, he was no longer the answer and got shipped to Milwaukee as part of the Tyler Thornburg trade.
You’ll obviously remember that Sandoval was a major disappointment in his first season in red. He provided negative value to the team (-2.0 fWAR) and was far below average as a hitter (75 wRC+).
Then there was the unfortunate demise of Middlebrooks, who flashed great ability in 2012 when he slashed .288/.325/.509 and launched 15 home runs. The following season, during the 2013 World Series run, he took a step backward. His batting average dropped by 60 points and his on-base percentage fell to a miserable .271. Things only got worse in 2014, when he struggled through 63 games with a .191 batting average. That led to a 43 wRC+. Even if you doubled that you’d still be looking at an easily replaceable commodity.
In 2011, homegrown Kevin Youkillis played the bulk of games at third base, returning to the position that he played while coming up in the minor leagues and starring in Moneyball. Middlebrooks was supposed to be the next successful homegrown third baseman, but that obviously didn’t work out. Trying to pay for one (Sandoval) hasn’t seemed to do the trick, and shifting Shaw over didn’t either.
For some time that meant that Yoan Moncada was not only the best prospect in the Red Sox system, but the great hope to be what Mookie Betts has been to right field, Xander Bogaerts has been at shortstop and Dustin Pedroia has been at second base for a decade.
But Moncada got dealt, and the return was sensational, yielding one of the best pitchers in baseball. But what Moncada’s departure means is the Sox are back to the drawing board when it comes to the future of third base.
It is that reason that Rafael Devers is easily the most important prospect in the system right now. Sure, Andrew Benintendi is the No. 1 prospect in baseball according to just about everyone, but considering he was an everyday player for a large chunk of last season, that’s kind of cheating. Devers is the No. 2 prospect behind Benintendi and while I won’t argue that Devers is the better prospect, he is the more important one. With Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr., the Red Sox already have a great outfield. What they don’t have is a great third baseman.
According to Fangraphs, Devers has a future value of 55 — which isn’t through the roof considering the scale goes from 20-80 — but that is largely because he is still early on in his development. With just three years of professional baseball under his belt, the 20-year old from the Dominican Republic has tons of room to grow. He did well in rookie ball (146 wRC+ and 176 wRC+ in two stops in 2014). In 2015 he played in Single-A and mashed his way to a .288/.329/.443 line with 11 home runs and 70 RBI. He still has work to do on pitch recognition, but he improved on that in 2016, when his walk percentage went from 4.7 percent to 7.3 percent. That corresponded with a slash line of .282/.335/.443 to go with 11 home runs and 71 RBI, as well as 18 stolen bases, a nice wrinkle that had not appeared much before.
Those are nice numbers to look at and should inspire hope for the position and Devers himself. Obviously the immediate answer at third base is (a hopefully improved) Pablo Sandoval, since he is still signed through 2019, with the Red Sox on the hook for $54.8 million during that time without including a $5 million buyout or $17 million team option in 2020. Plus there’s the grab bag of Brock Holt, Josh Rutledge, Deven Marrero and Marco Hernandez behind that.
We won’t see Devers at the MLB level for a couple years at least, and maybe not ever in a Red Sox uniform if Dave Dombrowski makes another big trade in the next few years. However, when we do, here’s hoping Devers is more Youkillis than Middlebrooks.