It wasn’t all that long ago that Michael Chavis looked like the next homegrown contributor for the Red Sox. The former top 100 prospect made his much-anticipated debut for the Red Sox on April 20, 2019, smashing a double in his first plate appearance. Over the course of the next month, Chavis’s stock continued to rise as he posted a wRC+ of 140 over that time frame and hit seven home runs across 104 plate appearances between April 20 and May 18. Despite some regression the rest of the season, Chavis’ prospect pedigree and strong start sparked quite a bit of optimism about his future.
In fact, Chavis impressed enough that the Red Sox were willing to try to fit him into the lineup even if his more natural positions (third and first base) were already locked down by established regulars in Rafael Devers and Mitch Moreland. That led to a lot of playing time at second base, and, as the team entered 2020, Chavis was considered a front runner to earn the starting role on a full-time basis.
Unfortunately, Chavis did not take the job and run with it, but instead struggled throughout the shortened 2020 season, which leaves his future in a perilous position as the 2021 season looms.
The former first round pick is still just 25 years old, so thinking of 2021 as a make-or-break season for him may seem drastic, but when you consider the context of the Red Sox’s organizational makeup his path back toward a meaningful long-term role becomes less clear. Chavis is never going to eclipse Devers at third base, so that leaves him two starting spots (second and first base) for which to compete, unless the Red Sox decide to permanently turn him into an outfielder. Let’s hold on that thought for a bit.
Starting with second base. Chavis only played eight games there last year, and the Red Sox picked up Christian Arroyo to shore up the post late in the season. Arroyo, who is also 25, remains on the roster now, as does Jonathan Araúz, and both of them played more games at second than Chavis a year ago.
Even though Roster Resource on FanGraphs currently projects Chavis as the starting second baseman for the Red Sox in 2021, that is a very generous (and short-term) prediction, especially since Arroyo and Araúz will not remain as Chavis’ only competition at second. Dustin Pedroia’s health remains a mystery, so its tough to say when or if he will ever come back to claim his spot, but the Red Sox have a couple highly touted middle infield prospects poised to take on the second base role in the next few years. Chief among them is Jeter Downs, who is considered the top prospect in Boston’s entire system by some and top two by most everyone. Downs is knocking on the door of his MLB debut, with FanGraphs projecting that he’ll get there as early as this summer. On top of Downs’s seemingly imminent arrival, the Red Sox could still be in the market for a second baseman on the free agent market. All in all, second base is a crowded conversation and one where Chavis is far from a slam dunk option right now.
So let’s move over to first base. Are Chavis’s prospects better over there? Not really. Bobby Dalbec erupted onto the scene at the end of the 2020 season, very much putting on a show like Chavis did in the beginning of 2019. However, Dalbec hasn’t regressed like Chavis, at least not yet. Of course, Dalbec hasn’t had a chance to, as he only played in 23 games last year. But its tough to ignore his eight home runs and 152 wRC+, even if his strikeout rate stands out as a red flag.
Just like at second base, Chavis isn’t just dealing with a one-on-one battle for the starting role at first base. If Downs isn’t the Red Sox’s top prospect, then Triston Casas is, and he is a corner infielder just like Chavis and Dalbec. Casas may be a little farther off than Downs, but FanGraphs has him pegged to make his MLB debut as early as 2022. That doesn’t give Chavis (or Dalbec) that much time to impress the Red Sox enough to secure the starting job permanently and forestall Casas’s promotion.
There are other roads that Chavis could take to becoming a regular contributor. The Red Sox started him 11 times in left field last season, and if they ultimately decide to deal Andrew Benintendi and fail to sign any other outfielders, Chavis would be in the mix for playing time there. However, the signing of Hunter Renfroe probably takes away one outfield spot, and even with a Benintendi trade, its seems unlikely the Red Sox won’t try to bring in one or two more proven outfielders to fill the gaps in addition to guys fighting for spots along with Chavis.
That then leaves the possibility that Chavis could end up playing the role of utility player. As we’ve discussed, he can fill in at most infield spots and dabble in the corner outfield if necessary. However, his defense has made him a liability in the field, as Chavis posted an overall mark of -4.1 defensive runs above average in 2020, according to FanGraphs. Those defensive shortcomings could have been forgiven to a degree if Chavis was still hitting like he did in early 2019, but his 65 wRC+ across 158 plate appearances in 2020 show that wasn’t the case.
As I wrote about for last week’s roundtable, barring a complete reinvention of his defensive abilities, the biggest thing that Chavis can do to improve his performance and thus his future prospects, is show more patience at the plate. He ranked in the bottom 11th percentile in walk rate, the bottom ninth percentile in strikeout rate and the bottom fourth percentile in whiff rate among MLB batters last season, according to StatCast. But underneath all that swinging and missing was at least a solid batter. He was roughly league average in hard hit rate last season and above average in home run to flyball rate. Showing more patience and connecting with more pitches could lead to the type of offensive improvement that would make Chavis a much more solid candidate to earn a starting role, especially if he can also be more consistent with his glove.
The problem Chavis now faces is that he’ll have to make those improvements under a great deal of scrutiny and with seemingly little room for error. The Red Sox aren’t likely to just give up on a 25-year-old former top prospect, but if he continues to struggle, especially at the plate in 2021, its hard to see how Chavis will fit in the team’s long-term plans. In many ways, the question isn’t whether or not Chavis can improve, but how much time the organization will give him to do so.