It goes without saying, I’m sure, but the Xander Bogaerts injury was a pretty big deal for the Red Sox, even if he only has to miss that 10-14 day stretch the team is calling for. Any injury to a regular is tough to swallow, of course, but this one in particular felt big. For one thing, Bogaerts has been almost carrying the offense at times early on, and it’s safe to say their record wouldn’t be where it is now without him. The lineup looks a lot shallower just by taking his one bat out of it. On top of that, the depth chart doesn’t look great behind him, especially with Dustin Pedroia still out. Now, the Red Sox are left with a choice between below-average defense with more upside at the plate or stronger defense up the middle but limited upside with the bat. Eduardo Nuñez, Brock Holt and Tzu-Wei Lin can all play either middle infield spot, but no pair out of that trio makes for an ideal combination. In Bogaerts’ absence, you can expect some sort of rotation between those three to cover the middle infield — Nuñez and Holt got the call in the first game — and it stands to reason that Lin is lowest on the depth chart given his relative lack of major-league experience. Despite the lack of experience, however, Lin shouldn’t just be relegated to bench duty. He deserves to get a fair shot to make some noise in this stretch.
The biggest reason for this is fairly obvious: Lin is far and away the best defensive player of this group. As it stands, the Red Sox already have something of an issue with their infield defense, particularly with the aforementioned Pedroia absence. When Bogaerts was in there, they were starting below-average glovemen at third and second (with Rafael Devers and Nuñez), and on most days they were average-ish at shortstop and first base with Bogaerts and Hanley Ramirez, though opinions vary on both of their skills in the field. The way I describe it is likely the most generous way to do so. Mitch Moreland can change things on days he plays at first, but either way there’s not a ton of defense on the dirt. Holt can play all over the diamond, but he doesn’t exactly excel anywhere. His most natural position is second base, and he can handle shortstop, but he’s another guy who’s average-at-best and would more likely be qualified as being below-average.
Lin, on the other hand, boasts middle-infield defense as his calling card and it’s the biggest reason he’s been able to stick around and move up the organizational ladder despite lackluster offense for most of his professional career. He’s gotten some work around the diamond, including in the outfield, to expand his versatility, but he’s most comfortable in the middle infield. His arm isn’t anything to write home about in terms of strength, but it’s certainly strong enough for the left side of the infield and he rarely makes poor throws. Lin is athletic enough to cover plenty of range, but it’s his instincts and smarts that really set him apart. Any day he’s in the lineup he instantly becomes the best defensive player on the infield. One could argue that this defensive issue isn’t as big of a deal for the Red Sox because their pitching staff skews so heavily towards fly balls, but shortstop is an important position regardless of who’s on the mound, and the quality of defense there always has the potential to swing a game.
Of course, while the defense is the big argument in favor of Lin, the bat becomes the biggest argument against him. As I mentioned above, most of the infielder’s professional career has been marred by subpar offensive numbers. That is, until last year when he made an adjustment before the season that showed right away at Double-A, where he hit .302/.379/.491. He wasn’t quite as successful after a surprise promotion to the majors, but he still posted a .709 OPS with strong on-base skills. He then went down to Pawtucket and struggled again. Still, even with the rollercoaster-like performance and genuinely poor track record, there’s a little bit of upside here. Granted, he’s almost certainly never going to be a consistent above-average hitter, but with his defense he doesn’t have to be. He has solid enough bat-to-ball and on-base skills to be somewhere within ten percentage points of league-average if everything goes well. It’s also worth noting that he apparently impressed the coaches in spring and was even a dark horse candidate to make the roster out of camp.
The player with whom he’d most likely be competing for playing time is Holt, who is perceived to have more upside at the plate. I’d be inclined to agree with that statement, but the gap may not be as wide as you’d first surmise. Neither player is going to bring power to the table, and while Holt has better bat-to-ball skills when he’s at his best, he hasn’t been at his best in a few years and has struggled in a very small sample to start this season. I’m more optimistic than most that he can get back towards that level, but it’s far from a guarantee. If he’s not back to his old self, or somewhere close to it, then the offensive comparison is at least close and arguably even.
There’s also the fact that offense from this spot isn’t the most important thing. Any one spot in the lineup can make or break a game in a big spot — that’s one of the most appealing aspects of the sport — but ultimately this offense will go as far as the top half will take them. If everyone is hitting like they can, the Red Sox can more than afford to skew towards defense over offense when deciding who to start on any given day. With all of that in mind, some sort of rotation and riding the hot hand still makes plenty of sense, but my hope is that experience doesn’t play too large a role in decision-making. Lin doesn’t have a ton of that in his favor, but he still deserves just as much of a shot to run with this chance as Holt.