Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Tzu-Wei Lin.
The Question: Will Tzu-Wei Lin be able to earn himself a more permanent role for future seasons?
Looking at the various sections of the Red Sox depth chart, there is really no wiggle room with the infield as long as everyone is healthy. That’s true for most of the roster, but the infield is a big group whose roles aren’t entirely clear but their spot on the roster is guaranteed. They have the four starters, Brock Holt, Eduardo Núñez and whichever first baseman isn’t starting that day. None of those players, if healthy, are in danger of losing their roster spot any time soon. If Núñez struggles mightily for a couple of months that could change, but I’d be surprised if that happened. Obviously, injuries can and likely will change things over the course of the season, but the point is that the depth options in the high minors are going to be hard-pressed to force their way up to the majors with strong play alone. It’s a situation Tzu-Wei Lin knows quite well.
Lin may know what it’s like to be blocked in the majors unless an injury opens up a spot, but he also knows that injuries can change everything for minor-league players. Remember, at the start of the 2017 season no one expected Lin to make his major-league debut that year. In fact, most everyone never expected him to make his major-league debut at that point. Lin exploded in Double-A that year with one of the biggest breakouts the system has seen in recent years, and the Red Sox found themselves devastated by injury and underperformance on the infield. They were desperate for bodies, and Lin got his chance. So, while it’s frustrating to not have a realistic chance at a major-league job without injuries, if you play well enough anything can happen.
That was a couple of years ago already, and Lin now has two years under his belt as an up-and-down player. In other words, the 25-year-old is going to enter the season with just one minor-league option. If he gets to the majors this year — and as the top infielder on the minor-league depth chart he almost certainly will — this will be his final year with an option. That makes this a very important year for Lin as this represents his chance to make his mark and get himself a permanent job for 2020 and beyond.
Despite playing in only 62 games, we know the utility man enough to know what he has going for him if the team or another team is to give him a bigger role at some point in the near future. The biggest item in the “pro” category is his defense, both in terms of his skills and his versatility. Even when Lin wasn’t hitting in the minors, he was a plus defensive shortstop who some thought had a future on the back of that alone. I’m not sure I’d still call his defense plus, but it’s still very good and at a certain point we’re just picking nits. More importantly, he’s good at a number of different positions. Lin has experience at second and third on top of short, and I’d be comfortable with him at either spot. Furthermore, the team has been using him in center field to expand his value. There’s still some learning to do there, but he has the athleticism and the work ethic to make it work. In other words, he is a true super-utility player with the glove.
On the other hand, the big question with Lin has always been his bat. Most of his time in the minors was spent as a weak-hitting middle infielder, but the aforementioned 2017 breakout included unprecedented power and quality of contact. Now, the .189 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) probably overplays his potential there, but there were real changes that led to more consistently hard contact. His swing and hitting style isn’t really built for power, but the adjustments should help to lead to consistently higher-than-average batting averages on balls in play. Lin will also draw a bunch of walks. On the other hand, his power will probably max out around .150 in his best years, and even that is probably generous, and he strikes out a bit more than you’d expect from someone with his profile. Overall, I’d expect his true-talent level to settle in with a wRC+ in the 85-90 range. That’s fine, but obviously not anything special.
If Lin can prove me right and make teams believe that’s his true-talent level with his performance in 2019, someone will believe in him for a bench role in 2020. It’s not the highest bar to clear, of course, but his versatility and acceptable level at the plate is nothing to sneeze at. The question then becomes what team it will be with, and that becomes trickier. The Red Sox could have some room, but it depends on how they value other things. Both Núñez and Holt are set to hit free agency after the season. At this point, I’d assume Núñez is all but gone for the 2020 season. Things can change drastically in a year, but that’s where we are at this point in time. Holt, on the other hand, is a bigger question. Strictly from a baseball sense, letting Holt walk for Lin would be the logical choice. Holt is better, to be sure, but he’s older, has a history with head injuries and will be significantly more expensive. The margin in talent isn’t that great. However, Holt is also perhaps the clubhouse favorite as well as a huge fan favorite. It’s tough to put a price on those things, particularly for the outside, but those are legitimate factors that need to be considered.
Still, even if Holt does stick around, Núñez’ absence would open up a roster spot for Lin, right? Technically, yes, but it doesn’t seem to make a ton of sense to keep both Holt and Lin at the same time. They are very similar players. On top of that, there are other players who could be looking for a job. Michael Chavis and possibly even Bobby Dalbec should and could be pushing for a jump to the majors. The first basemen being free agents helps there, but it’s still another name in the mix. Then, there’s the Marco Hernández question, not to mention someone like C.J. Chatham possibly making his way up by next year. The point is 2020 is a long way away right now and there’s a chance there’s room for Lin, but there are a lot of scenarios where it doesn’t make sense to keep him with the Red Sox.
With all of that being said, whether it’s with Boston or not Lin has a chance to get himself up in the majors for good if he can have another successful year in 2019. Most of these questions have to do with a player’s effect on the team, but for Lin his season is more important for himself than it is for the Red Sox. As long as he can maintain the strides he’s made with the bat over the last few years, Lin will get a chance somewhere after this. Someone will want his versatility, but continuing to make the consistent contact he’s made the last two years could be easier said than done. It’s also what stands between riding the busses for another year and getting a shot at consistent major-league time.