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Potential Offseason Target: Javier Báez

The infielder could be Boston’s big splash this winter.

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New York Mets v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

Due presumably to the impending lockout that most expect to freeze all transactions around the league for an undetermined amount of time starting later this week, we’ve seen a nearly unprecedented amount of hot stove activity happening in a short time this early in the winter. Much of that activity has taken place around the starting pitching market, but we are also starting to see some position player movement as well. Most notable in that movement thus far has been Marcus Semien’s signing with the Rangers on Sunday. His seven-year deal was certainly aggressive and apprehension around that kind of contract is reasonable, but at the same time that was a potential splash for the Boston Red Sox at a position of need in the middle of the infield.

Instead, it seems at least from the outside that the team had little in the way of contact with Semien and were looking in other directions. Their plans at second base still aren’t totally clear, as Christian Arroyo remains and has some intrigue. That said, it’s the most obvious spot for a position player upgrade, and the Red Sox have had some interest in big names there. Most recently, there has been reported interest in former Cub and Met Javier Báez, who is one of the biggest names on the free agent market this winter.

If the Red Sox are indeed interested in pursuing this kind of deal — we know to take any report with some grain of salt — it would certainly qualify as a splash. MLB Trade Rumors projects a five-year $100 million deal for Báez this winter, and they’ve been pretty in line with what we’ve actually seen with the contracts signed thus far. We’ll talk about the merits of this cost in a minute, but just in terms of capitalizing on the momentum of a successful 2021 with an exciting offseason, bringing in Báez does fit the bill. The question is whether or not the on-field fit is there.

New York Mets v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

I’ll be honest and say that when I started this I was not a big proponent of the possibility of targeting the middle infielder this winter, and a lot of that has to do with his approach at the plate. Báez doesn’t exactly scream plate discipline with a bat in his hand, as neither his strikeout rate nor walk rate are on the side of average you would want your key hitter to stand. This past season, as an example, he ended the year striking out just under 34 percent of the time to go with a walk rate under six percent. It’s not impossible to produce with those kind of baseline plate discipline rates, but it leaves players a tiny margin of error and thus presents plenty of risk.

That said, the more I think about it the more I think Báez can be a good fit for the Red Sox despite the strikeout and walk deficiencies. A lot of it comes down to the identity of this team and specifically Alex Cora. Boston’s manager has a relationship with Báez, who is a fellow Puerto Rico native, so that’s a great start. Cora has an attack mentality at the plate and wants his hitters to be hunting hittable pitches. We saw at times this past year that approach backfire, but generally speaking his teams have been able to strike the right balance. Enrique Hernández is a good example of someone who was able to improve his plate discipline without sacrificing the aggressive mentality at the plate. It’s not a perfect comparison as he never struck out like Báez does, but that general philosophy can be used in this potential case as well.

And we should of course mention that even with the way that Báez has approached things over his career, he’s generally been a good hitter. He’s never quite reached the elite status that many hoped given his ability to crush baseballs, but the contact quality does help cancel out the plate discipline. Báez has been at least 12 percent better than the league-average hitter three of the last four years, with the exception coming in the shortened 2020 season. As a right-handed hitter at Fenway, that tendency hard contact should play right into the ballpark’s hands, even if he does continue to strikeout without drawing walks.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is that the offense is only part of the package for Báez. You certainly want anyone you’re potentially going to hand $100 million to be able to hit, but where he really makes a difference is in the field and on the bases. Although these are harder areas to evaluate and their impacts aren’t always as pronounced, they are precisely what Boston needs. Defensively, their reputation precedes itself.

Right now, ground ball pitchers are essentially a no-go for a Boston defense that is among the worst in baseball. Báez wouldn’t solve those issues by himself, but he’s an elite defensive player at either second base or shortstop and would instantly raise the entire group’s floor. The Xander Bogaerts of it all would have to be sorted out eventually, but whether Báez played second or short it would be a huge boost for the group.

And then on the basepaths, Báez is about as good as it gets in the league, combining good instincts with plus athleticism. Boston’s baserunning has been below-average for a couple of years now, and since the departure of Mookie Betts they haven’t really had a true threat on the bases. Báez would give them that different dynamic and, depending on how the lineup sorted itself out, could potentially provide some distraction for the pitchers while they face the likes of Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez.

The cost is where things get tricky, and while the Red Sox do have the money to make multiple splashes they likely aren’t going to hand out multiple big contracts this winter. The case for Báez comes down to two main points. The first is that he does not cost a draft pick, as he was traded midseason from Chicago to New York. $100 million is not a nothing contract, but it’s also not massive by modern standards and is only money, not prospects. On top of that, the rotation options left in free agency all have questions, and the Red Sox could use the lack of draft pick compensation to feel more comfortable swinging a trade to address the rotation hole and using their cash on hand for second base.

At the end of the day, I still have a hard time totally looking past the plate discipline issues for Báez. That said, I think I’ve talked myself into liking this possibility for the Red Sox. Getting this kind of dynamic talent without giving up a draft pick as he enters his age-29 season could be a big move for this team. Not only would Báez shore up a position that looks shaky right now, but he would immediately inject multiple much-needed qualities into this lineup. There are other potential splashes still available that could have a similar impact, but at the very least Báez’s market is one worth monitoring the rest of the way.