You’ll excuse any fan of the Red Sox who wants to put pretty much all of their focus this winter on the pitching staff. Anyone who watched even a portion of the 2020 season knows they were a historically bad staff, and while the sheer advancement of time and normal regression should fix some of that, there is essentially no way for this roster to be respectable without upgrades on that front. That’s the priority for fans, and Chaim Bloom himself has alluded to that being a priority for the team as well.
And beyond the pitching woes, there is also plenty of concern about what they will do in the outfield. Again, this is completely logical with Jackie Bradley Jr. now a free agent and a glaring hole sitting somewhere in the outfield depending on how comfortable they are with either Andrew Benintendi or Alex Verdugo in center field. There are a number of directions they can go here, but pretty much all of them involve some action on the outfield market.
Pitching and outfield. Those are the two areas where pretty much everyone expects the Red Sox to do something. But amid the focus on those two spots on the roster, second base should not be lost in the shuffle. It’s not quite as big of a need because, unlike pitching, it’s just been bad instead of tell-your-grandchildren bad. And unlike the outfield, there are ostensibly options already in the organization to take over. Despite that, I would be disappointed in the offseason if they don’t add any talent here.
Now, this is not nearly as unanimous a path as the pitching and the outfield, and there are arguments to let it ride at the keystone position. The logic largely relies on the unfortunately realistic notion of a limited budget for baseball teams this winter, and that if the Red Sox go over the luxury tax threshold at all this winter it won’t be by much. We’ll table the discussion on whether or not that’s necessary, but it’s almost certainly true.
And with the seemingly limited resources, there is only so much money to spend on upgrades. So the logic dictates that most of that should go to the other needs. There is an argument, after all, that you can get some combination of internal options to produce up to two or three wins above replacement, which would be the expectation for any mid-tier free agent or trade acquisition anyway.
And the Red Sox do indeed have a whole lot of fringe players that can play second base that would be part of that theoretical combination. Those players include Christian Arroyo, Michael Chavis, Yairo Muñoz, Jonathan Araúz, C.J. Chatham, and Chad De La Guerra, plus potentially Jeter Downs later in the year if things progress well for him next summer. That’s a lot, and by the well-known theory of Throwing Poop At The Wall, at some point they almost have to find some sort of acceptable combination.
The issue with this line of logic is that this is not a theoretical realm in which they have all the time in the world to figure out which combination they want to use. While, yes, chances are if we were to freeze the aging process and take literally much time as we need, at some point we’d find some combination of one or two players that would provide satisfactory production at the position. Unfortunately, baseball seasons happen under a time constraint.
So let’s just say you start with Christian Arroyo as your primary option at second base. There’s no guarantee that he’s on the top of their depth chart right now, but he finished the year there and has gotten some support in that role. And, to be fair, there is legitimate reason to be at least mildly excited about what he can bring. Arroyo is a former top prospect and is roughly the same age as Bobby Dalbec and Michael Chavis, so he’s far from over hill. On the other hand, he has gotten about a half-season’s worth of plate appearances in the majors and has been 27 percent worse than league-average. Even in 2020 when he apparently worked his way to this position, he was worse than average (94 wRC+) in a 54-plate appearance sample. So, while there is potential, he certainly hasn’t done enough for me to think there’s no downside, or even that the upside outweighs the downside.
And so let’s say you start with Arroyo and, because the world is a cruel mistress, you get the player he’s been more often in recent years that is a bench bat at best and likely a Quad-A player. No worries. You can just move on to the next option. Except you don’t do that right away. You have to give Arroyo some time to show that it’s not just a rough week or whatever, which brings us to the biggest issue with this plan. How long do you give an option before moving on? A month? That seems like a reasonable trial period to me, but it’s also one-sixth of the season.
And every other option listed there has a similar kind of downside — and for someone like Muñoz, my personal favorite option in terms of pure talent, starting him at second removes him from his most valuable role as a super utility man, which is particularly valuable for a team like Boston with shaky outfield depth— so even if there is a good option somewhere in that mess it is very possible, perhaps even likely, that you will have wasted at least half the season before you even find them. And then add another month until you’re even confident they are the choice.
None of this is to say the Red Sox need to go nuts and sign DJ LeMahieu or trade for Whit Merrifield or anything like that. There is an argument for that kind of splash, but we’ll save that for another day. The point is they need somebody who is reliable, which is a trait that has been lacking at this position since Dustin Pedroia’s knees began failing him. Michael Walsh gave us a few options on this front earlier in the offseason.
And as I said at the top, it’s perfectly reasonable for pitching and outfield to be a priority over this. In fact, it would be concerning if that wasn’t the case. But just because something isn’t the top priority doesn’t mean it can be forgotten. The Red Sox say they want to put a respectable roster on the field next year, and part of that involves not running out a black hole at second base yet again. If they don’t do anything, maybe they can find lightning in a bottle with one of the many options they have, but there’s a reason those options are all seen as depth rather than major-league starters. And since, as far as I know, the 2021 season will not be played in a timeless vacuum, it’s much easier said than done to find the standout. They can simply forgo that process by signing an actual established starting-caliber player for the position.