Yesterday, we started a short series of posts in which we look at some situations around the diamond that need to be sorted out before the postseason begins. On Sunday, we looked at first base and whether or not Mitch Moreland should continue to be the number one option at first base. Today, we’re moving across the diamond to look at the hot corner. Third base has been an issue for this team in some way, shape or form all season, but they’ve had a clear man taking the playing time at the position for the majority of the season. An injury shook things up for the last month, though, and now it’s not quite as clear what will happen moving forward. Let’s take a look at the two main options along with a couple darkhorses and how the playing time should be split.
We’ll start with the guy who seems to be the favorite right now in Eduardo Núñez. There is no question he is playing best right now, largely because he’s gotten the chance in Rafael Devers’ absence. Still, Núñez has made the most of his opportunity, though the bar was not exactly set sky-high for Núñez based on both his and Devers’ performances. Still, over his last 15 games the infielder is hitting .268/.276/.482. Obviously, that on-base percentage is not what you’re looking for, but we know what kind of hitter Núñez is. He’s always going to be ultra-aggressive, but when he goes on hot streaks he regularly hits the ball with authority and gets extra-base hits. He’s doing that right now, hitting the ball hard and using the entire field on a much more consistent basis in the second half. Combine that with him seemingly moving as well as he has all year, there is reason to feel good about him.
On the other side, there is Devers, who was supposed to take this position and run away with it in his first full season as a professional. As we’ve seen so many times before, however, with opponents having some tape on the young player he has struggled in his second taste of the majors after coming up in the second half last year. On the whole, Devers really hasn’t met expectations in 2018. He’s hit just .239/.296/.416 for an 85 wRC+ this season, but it’s really been more of a roller coaster. Lately, we’ve seen more bad than good. Since coming back from his original DL stint on August 8, the young third baseman has hit just .167/.306/.300, albeit in just 36 plate appearances. There was, of course, another DL stint mixed in there as well.
When comparing the two, it’s really a comparison of styles. Both have shown heights this season — Núñez obviously having them more recently — but both have also shown extreme lows. With Núñez, you have a guy who is going to put the ball in play almost every time he comes to the plate. That can be a good thing, keeping the defense on its heels and opening up chances for mistakes. However, it can also mean bad pitches being put into play as well as short at bats. With Devers, you have a player with a lot of swing and miss in his game, but also a sky-high ceiling. We’ve only seen flashes this season, but everyone knows its there.
Of course, we can’t talk about these two without discussing the defense. For both, the perception around their glovewok is very low, and for good reason. However, both are probably a bit better than what they get credit for. Núñez was an absolute disaster at second base, but he’s much better at third. That’s not to say he’s Gold Glove-caliber or anything like that, but he can hold is own and play about average defense there. Devers, meanwhile, is more boom-or-bust, just like at the plate. He has a ton of errors, and those clearly aren’t something to be brushed aside, but they are often the result of poor process than poor skills. Whether it be rushing throws or simply attempting throws that shouldn’t be made, those are his biggest issues. In terms of skill, he can make big-time stops and strong throws as well. Overall I’d take the safety of Núñez, but the edge isn’t large enough to make up a massive difference at the plate, if one exists.
Ultimately, I think the plan at this position over the next few weeks needs to be executed with an eye towards October, and also has to be handled carefully. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the preferred outcome for this team is to have a confident and rolling Devers acting as the everyday third baseman. As I said, he has the much higher ceiling at the plate, and if he has his head about him he can more than handle himself in the field. The issue is that the swing-and-miss in his game means Núñez would be the steadier option if the former isn’t hitting well. Thus, they should be doing what they can to get Devers at least somewhat consistent playing time in the hopes he can get going in September. That being said, they also need to keep Núñez involved as the current favorite and possible everyday guy in the postseason. Whether they simply alternate playing time for the two or work both in at other spots throughout the month, both need to play and get a chance to get hot before October.
What about a situation in which both players are scuffling heading into the postseason? Given the profiles of Núñez and Devers, it’s not completely impossible. The Red Sox do have a couple of darkhorses in this situation. Blake Swihart is more likely to get his time behind the plate, and he was also mentioned in the first base post linked above, but he could also get some time here. He hasn’t played a whole lot at third, but he’s impressed in the short time he has spent at the hot corner. Brandon Phillips also hasn’t played a lot of third base, though he did get the start there on Sunday night, as well as playing 66 innings at the position in the minors this year. They have said they want him to be as versatile as possible, so this is a very real possibility if they don’t like what they’re getting from Núñez or Devers.
Like I said, I think the ideal scenario for the Red Sox is one in which Devers steps up and starts to look like he did towards the end of last year. The bottom of this lineup has been better of late, but the thing that could really take them to the next level would be a legitimate power threat. When he’s on, that’s what Devers is. If he can get going, this position can change from a weakness to a strength. If not, they had better hope Núñez can keep this hard contact going.