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2021-2022 Offseason Preview: The Middle Infield market

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Quantity, Quality, and Qualifying Offers highlight the men in the middle

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New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

With option decisions having been made and the five-day window after the World Series closed, we are now officially in free agency and player movement should be upon us. (The CBA situation is likely to slow down that progress, but players can change teams now.) For the coming week, every day we will look at a new position group of free agents and trade candidates, finding some who may or may not be fits for the Boston Red Sox this winter. Note that this is not a complete list of free agents and trade targets. Today we look at the middle infielders available.

Where the Red Sox stand now

Although it’s not entirely set in stone which side of the second base bag he’ll be standing on next year, the 29-year-old Xander Bogaerts should almost certainly be penciled in as one of the two middle infielders in 2022, barring a Mookie Betts type of trade to get ahead of Bogaerts’ opt-out at the end of the season. It’s more than likely that he’ll stay at shortstop, but after finishing in the bottom 1% in the Outs Above Average metric on Baseball Savant in 2021, the question of whether Xander has enough range to stay at shortstop won’t be going away anytime soon. On the offensive end, Bogaerts did what we’ve become so accustomed to with a wRC+ of 130 or better for the fourth consecutive season.

The lack of certainty with the returning second basemen makes the middle infield an area where the Red Sox seem possible to make a splash in the offseason. With Enrique Hernández likely to stay in the outfield, that only leaves Christian Arroyo as a possible candidate on the roster to slot in at the keystone. With a career-high 181 plate appearances during an injury- (and COVID-) plagued 2021, Arroyo should be relied on as a platoon or bench bat.

While on the field, Arroyo contributed above-average defense at second base with a .262 average and six home runs that all seemed to come at the biggest moments. Top prospect Jeter Downs seems to be at least a year away from consideration after hitting .190 in a very disappointing season at triple-A. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention José Iglesias after he hit .356 in 23 September games for the Red Sox, a year after hitting .373 in the short-season with Baltimore. Iglesias will be a 32-year-old free agent and hits right-handed, like Arroyo, but was a perfect fit on and off the field in Boston down the stretch.

National League Championship Series Game 6: Los Angeles Dodgers v. Atlanta Braves
Chris Taylor
Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Free Agents

2021 numbers and team(s) in parentheses

2B:

  • Marcus Semien (TOR; 724 PA, .265/.334/.538, 131 wRC+, fWAR 6.6)
  • Chris Taylor (LAD; 582 PA, .254/.344/.438, 113 wRC+, fWAR 3.1)
  • César Hernández (CLE/CHW; .232/.308/.386, 90 wRC+, fWAR 2.2)
  • Jonathan Villar (NYM; 505 PA, .249/.322/.416, 105 wRC+, fWAR 2.1)
  • Leury García (CHW; 415 PA, .267/.335/.376, 98 wRC+, fWAR 2.0)
  • Josh Harrison (WAS/OAK; 558 PA, .279/.341/.400, 103 wRC+, fWAR 1.5)
  • Donovan Solano (SF; 344 PA, .280/.344/.404, 105 wRC+, fWAR 1.1)
  • Jed Lowrie (OAK; 512 PA, .245/.318/.398, 100 wRC+, fWAR 0.9)

SS:

  • Carlos Correa (HOU; 640 PA, .328/.375/.536, 134 wRC+, fWAR 5.8)
  • Corey Seager (LAD; 409 PA, .306/.394/.521, 147 wRC+, fWAR 3.7)
  • Javier Báez (CHC/NYM; 547 PA, .265/.319/.494, 116 wRC+, fWAR 3.6)
  • Trevor Story (COL; 595 PA, .251/.329/.471, 100 wRC+, fWAR 3.5)
  • Freddy Galvis (BAL/PHI; 394 PA, .242/.302/.407, 90 wRC+, fWAR 1.6)
  • José Iglesias (BAL/BOS: 511 PA, .271/.309/.391, 91 wRC+, fWAR 1.0)

Five of the above players were offered an $18.4M qualifying offer and would force draft pick compensation to be attached to their signing. Those players are Marcus Semien, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Trevor Story, and Chris Taylor, with Taylor being the most likely of the five to sign this one-year offer.

Correa and Seager are hitting free agency in their twenties and are likely to receive lengthy deals totaling $200M or more. At 31-years-old, Semien may be more attainable on a shorter-term deal and would be the player I would love to see the Red Sox go after, coming off a 45 home run season, with 102 RBI and 115 runs. He leads all players in Fangraphs WAR (15.4) from 2019-2021 combined, and that despite a down year in the short 2020 season, while being solid defensively and playing all 162 games in 2019 and 2021. Baez would be a lot of fun, but his career .307 OBP and a 33.1% K-rate over the last two seasons is hard to ignore. Story is difficult to evaluate on both sides of the field thanks to the Coors Effect but a .251 average this season entering free agency could allow him to be more of a bargain than he would have been a year ago.

Taylor might take the qualifying offer but if he doesn’t, he would be a terrific second-tier free-agent target for Boston. His playoff experience, eye at the plate (.350 OBP since the start of 2020), sneaky power, and 2B/OF versatility screams “Enrique Hernández Part II” to me. He can even serve as the backup shortstop on a Bogaerts off day. If the Sox spend at other positions, César Hernández is a 32-year-old switch-hitting second baseman with a .270 career average who has only missed 17 games over the past four seasons and popped 21 home runs in 2021. He may come cheap after having a $6 million option declined by the White Sox.

Potential Trade Partners

  • Kansas City Royals: The Royals have Whit Merrifield on a team-friendly deal and Bobby Witt Jr. ready to take over as the future at shortstop. In regards to Adalberto Mondesi, “We can’t count on him as an everyday player,” said GM Dayton Moore recently, and they may be frustrated enough by his missed games in previous years to move him, only two years away from free agency.
  • Oakland A’s: Tony Kemp hits left-handed and struck out less than 13% of the time with a .382 OBP in 2021. The A’s may trade every player on their active roster this winter so get in line now.
  • Milwaukee Brewers: With Kolten Wong and Willie Adames up the middle, Keston Hiura has become a forgotten man. The former ninth overall pick spent a lot of time in Triple-A in 2021 and has hit only .192 in 120 games over the past two seasons in the big leagues after a .303 average in his rookie season. Perhaps a change of scenery with a new coaching staff could help but his defense both at 1B and 2B would not solve any problems in the infield.
  • Arizona Diamondbacks: Ketel Marte had what seemed like a team-friendly deal but depending on when the Diamondbacks plan to compete, they may consider moving his $8M salary in 2022 before two club options. He has struggled to stay on the field in the past two seasons and has not come close to matching his 2019 career year since.
  • Colorado Rockies: The Rockies are liable to do anything with their young players and are seemingly years away from competing. Ryan McMahon has two years of arbitration left before free agency and has played first, second, and third base for Colorado. The first two positions are spots that a left-handed bat with McMahon’s splits could be a nice fit. McMahon hit .264 with 19 HR against RHP in 2021, but only .229 with 4 HR vs. LHP.

While it appears that free agency is the clear place to attack due to the sheer number of middle infielders available there, it’s possible that the Red Sox choose to spend their money on pitching, Kyle Schwarber, and extending their own players like Devers and Bogaerts. Ketel Marte has a chance to get back to stardom if he stays on the field but would likely require quality prospects to go back in return. Of the above names that seem attainable by trade, Ryan McMahon and Tony Kemp are versatile players defensively who hit from the left side to complement players like Christian Arroyo and Bobby Dalbec. More importantly, they are unlikely to break the bank from a salary and trade value perspective. Or they could just give 600 at-bats to José Iglesias. That works too.