Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we look at Jonathan Araúz.
The Question: Can Jonathan Araúz improve his contact in the minors?
In a way, Jonathan Araúz was the introduction to the Chaim Bloom era in Boston. Prior to last year, the Red Sox had rarely partaken in the Rule 5 Draft, and most of the time they did make a selection it ended up being for another team as they traded the player right after the draft. But Araúz was their own, and they intended to keep him on the roster. They did just that, too, as he stayed with the big league club all summer. They are trying to do the same with Garrett Whitlock this year as well. It should be mentioned that the shortened season and expanded rosters certainly helped Araúz stick, but the Red Sox are likely glad he did.
You wouldn’t really know there was much reason to have even tempered excitement about the infielder being in the organization by looking at his 2020 numbers, as he was largely lackluster in his performance. Araúz only played in 25 games last season and received just 80 plate appearances, finishing the year hitting .250/.325/.319 for a 78 wRC+. But hidden in those small sample numbers were some flashes that showed potential for a legitimate major leaguer at some point in the future. He made some solid contact, and more importantly had a workable approach at the plate.
Now, he will get a chance to actually develop how he should. It’s easy to forget now, but the now-22-year-old (he’ll turn 23 in August) was not at the point in his development where he should have been in the majors last season. Prior to 2020, while still in the Astros organization, Araúz only had 29 games above High-A under his belt, and he had never played at Triple-A. That’s part of the risk with Rule 5 picks, that they often are higher up the ladder than they should be. But if you keep them for a year you can get them back on track the following year. For Araúz, that means he should spend the bulk of 2021 in Worcester, getting everyday at bats while likely manning second base at Triple-A most of the time.
That everyday playing time is going to be important if he is going to be a consistent major league player moving forward. The profile for Araúz isn’t that of a future star, but with the right developmental wins there is a good bench player here. The power isn’t ever likely to be a big part of his game — some are more optimistic than I that it can develop into being marginally useful — but as I mentioned he has a solid approach. And while he struck out 26 percent of the time in the majors last year, that’s not really the expectation moving forward. Instead, it’s more of a reflection of him being in over his head against major-league pitching as a 21-year-old. He should be able to play a good middle infield, take some walks and put the ball in play. And so the deciding factor between him just getting a few up-and-down years before falling off and him carving out a longer career in the majors is going to be what kind of contact he produces when he puts the ball in play.
Given the small sample size, it’s hard to put too much stock into any sort of batted ball numbers from last year, but it is worth at least noting that he struggled to hit the ball hard, which is backed up from scouts’ takes from his days in the minors. Again, he was ahead of where he should have been development-wise in 2020 so it makes sense, but per Baseball Savant he had a hard-hit rate of just 25 percent and an average exit velocity of just 85 mph. Even if the strikeout rate was lower, that’s not going to result in a lot of hits without extreme luck. Araúz is never going to be at the top of any exit velo leaderboards given the aforementioned lack of power, but he can get that number up and combine it with a propensity to put balls in play and a good approach to get on base at a solid clip. First and foremost he needs to take advantage of fastballs, against which he had an average exit velocity of just 86 mph last year, though again the sample is arguably bordering on useless.
It’s not just how hard he’s hitting the ball, though. In fact, I would argue that is the secondary concern. Instead, I’d try to focus more on where he’s hitting the ball. Today’s baseball player is focused on power and launch angle, and for good reason. For the most part, the trade off with a little more swing and miss is worth the pay off of more extra base hits. But for a player like Araúz who just hasn’t shown the power stroke, it can only be harmful. And in fairness to him, he’s not an extreme fly ball hitter. He’s had spells in the minors where he’s been line drive-heavy, and that’s the best profile for him. Singles and doubles are the more realistic and productive goal for someone with his profile.
To take that to another level, though, he should be shooting line drives all over the field, and this is where the minor-league seasoning comes in. He has hit line drives in the past, but he’s often been a bit too pull-heavy, going to his pull side at least 45 percent of the time throughout his minor-league career according to batted ball data from FanGraphs. It’s not super extreme, but there’s a thin margin of error for Araúz, and anything that makes him easier to defend is going to hurt his chances at sticking in the majors long-term.
Any expectation for Araúz to be a long-term starter or any kind of star is unfounded, but that’s never the expectation for a Rule 5 pick. There are surprises here and there, but generally speaking if he was a future starter he wouldn’t have been available in the first place. The goal is to find a solid major-league role player, and Araúz can be that with the right adjustment. He has the ability to play solid defense all around the infield, and he has the approach on which to build a solid base on the plate. Now he just needs to find the way to get the most out of his batted balls. Fortunately, he should have plenty of time to work at that at Triple-A this year, and if he can start to spray line drives all over the field, 2021 may be the last time he has to worry about hanging out in the minors.