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 singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Tzu-Wei Lin.
The Question: Can Tzu-Wei Lin stick with the Red Sox?
Most of these questions, as you know if you’ve been following along with this series (and if you haven’t, what the heck?), the general theme is to pick something more specific. As I say in that italicized little intro up above, that isn’t always, the case, but more often than not it is. This is going to be one of those other times. For Lin, it just didn’t make sense to try and find something micro and ignore the macro, because for Lin the macro seems to inform everything about the upcoming year more than just about anyone else on the 40-man roster. The only other player who perhaps joins him in that conversation is Jonathan Arauz who, well, we’ll get to his relationship to Lin in a bit.
Back to Lin, who has had what I think is sort of underrated fascinating career as a pro in the Red Sox system. He has been with Boston since way back in 2012 when yours truly still had a full year of college left. He signed out of Taiwain for a substantial signing bonus just over $2 million, but took a very long time to really make his mark in the organization. He plugged along through the low minors with almost exclusively below-average hitting but a good glove that kept him moving up the ladder. Then in 2017, once the shine was basically all the way off, he broke out out of nowhere in Portland. That, combined with an almost-comical rash of injuries in the infield for Boston, earned him a shocking call-up that summer and put him on the 40-man.
Lin would be a similar up-and-down infield depth piece in 2018 as well, and over two relatively small sample sizes in those seasons in the majors he was relatively close to a league-average bat (95 OPS+). Suddenly, heading into his last option year, he seemed poised to get more of a chance to show some longevity in the majors and carve out a chance for a real career.
Unfortunately, the injury bug had a different reason and Lin never got his season off the ground. He struggled early on in the year both in Triple-A and a two-week stint in the majors before going down with a shoulder injury. This cost him a little over a month on the injured list, and once he returned he never got another chance in the majors. It’s not that the Red Sox couldn’t have used him — their offense wasn’t bad last year, but I mean Chris Owings was on the roster for the end of the year — but he just didn’t earn it in Triple-A. Overall in Pawtucket he slashed .246/.308/.357.
So, over the course of a year, Lin went from a guy on the cusp of being a consistent bench presence in this league to entering camp out of minor-league options and on the roster bubble. Of course, even if he doesn’t make the roster he can clear waivers, get back to Pawtucket and perhaps reset later. However, there’s also a very real chance he gets claimed, and from there there’s always a chance of entering waiver limbo where you’re changing teams every month or two. It’s not where you want to be, and Lin is going to have to perform well both in camp and in the majors, if he makes it that far.
Offensively, it’s fairly clear what Lin needs to be. When he’s going well he is hitting a lot of line drives and can smack a few doubles around, relying on a solid hit tool and good patience to get on base. That said, he does have enough power where it’s not a total loss, and looking at his numbers last year there was a total lack of power. He finished the year with a .112 Isolated Power at Triple-A and a .100 ISO in the majors. Both leagues, of course, had the juiced ball.
Generally when we think of power we obviously think of home runs, but Isolated Power is slugging minus batting average. In other words, it counts all extra-base hits, and for Lin the big difference in production was a lack of doubles and triples. Looking at what changed the most from 2016 and before to 2017 and after, and adding the caveat that minor-league batted ball data (which I’m getting from FanGraphs) aren’t 100 percent reliable, Lin switched out ground balls for line drives. Last season, he had his lowest line drive rate since that break out in 2017. In camp, watch for Lin’s launch angle, less specifically at actual numbers and moreso at whether or not he is driving the ball on a line gap-to-gap.
The other point for Lin with this team specifically is his versatility on defense. They have guys who can play multiple positions, but Lin has the added advantage of being able to play both the infield and the outfield. The signing of Kevin Pillar after the acquisition of Alex Verdguo makes that less necessary, but it’s still worth noting that the Triple-A depth in the outfield is Marcus Wilson and then not much else. Because of that lack of depth, I’m interested to see where they line Lin up in the spring. If there’s a lot of outfield play, that could be a sign that they value that outfield defense and could hint towards a stay on the roster.
I feel fairly confident that Lin is going to make the roster out of camp. It’s certainly no sure thing, but the injury to Verdugo opened up a spot and teams generally lean towards keeping the out-of-option players to reserve depth. Plus, the competition just isn’t that intimidating with two spots for the likes of Lin, Arauz, Marco Hernández, Bobby Dalbec and C.J. Chatham, among others. The real key for Lin is going to be as the season moves on and as guys like Dalbec and Chatham perhaps make pushes in Triple-A. Lin has shown he can be a very useful major-league player. Now it’s just about showing that was real and that last year was just a season lost to injury.