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2021 Red Sox Positional Preview: Middle Infield

A group that includes the best player on the team, as well as one of its top two prospects.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Welcome to the 2021 positional preview series. Over the next seven days, we will be looking at each position group — catcher, corner infield, middle infield, corner outfield, center field, starting pitchers, and relief pitchers — throughout the organization. For each installment we will take a look at the projected starter(s), the options to come off the bench, the depth pieces who will be waiting at the Alternate Site/at Triple-A, the top prospect, the sleeper prospect, all the rest of the prospects for each position, and where they stand in the division. Today we look at the middle infield spots.

Starters

Xander Bogaerts, Kiké Hernández

The middle infield is going to be a really interesting spot for the Red Sox this year, with one half of the group being the best player on the team (I don’t think this is a controversial take, right?) and the other half being a revolving door. We’re sticking Kiké Hernández in this spot, but he will be more than just the second baseman.

For now, though, let’s start with Bogaerts. He has yet to actually play shortstop this spring due to a shoulder issue, but the expectation is still that he’ll be fine by the time the season starts. They better hope so, because he is the anchor of this lineup. He’s been so consistently good without being out-of-this-world great at any one thing the last few years that it can be easy to forget how productive he’s been at the plate. Going back to the start of 2018, only 17 hitters have been better than Bogaerts in all of baseball by wRC+, as he has outpaced guys like José Ramírez, Bryce Harper and Paul Goldschmidt, among others. There are legitimate questions on defense, but I am among those that think he is closer to average than unusable. Overall, he’s the best player on the team, and I really don’t think there’s much debate to be had on that point.

As for Hernández, there are certainly more question marks. The biggest positive will be his glove, both because he is very good and because he can play multiple spots at a high level. Whether he’s in the outfield or here at second base, I expect him to be a plus defensively. Offensively, it will be more interesting. He has shown the talent before, and Alex Cora is a big enough believer that he is actually considering putting him in the leadoff spot. I’m not wild about that idea, but Hernández has responded to the motivation so far this spring, so I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt early on.

Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Bench

Marwin Gonzalez, Michael Chavis, Christian Arroyo

One of these players will be starting, probably Gonzalez and probably in left field much of the time, but all three of these guys can also sub in for the middle infield. All three are much better fits at second base than shortstop — Chavis can’t play shortstop at all — but they can all provide some versatility and some potential for solid production at the plate. Shortstop depth is, however, one of the weak spots in the organization, and Arroyo appears to be the guy who would step in there the most early on if Bogaerts couldn’t go.

As for the offense, we talked about the first two yesterday. Arroyo is a player with a legitimate prospect pedigree and the organization seems to like him, though the track record isn’t there. Still, he’s only 25 and has impressed in camp. That, along with his lack of minor-league options, will allow him to get a chance off the bench early in the year.

Depth

Yairo Muñoz, Jonathan Araúz, Jeter Downs, Chad De La Guerra, Danny Santana

We talked about everyone on this list yesterday except for Downs, and we’ll talk a bunch about him in a minute. I’ll just add today that Araúz is the best shortstop of this bunch early on, and Santana’s foot infection looks like it will keep him out for a bit so he won’t be in this picture, at least to start the season.

Top Prospect

Jeter Downs

As promised, now we talk about Downs. I said yesterday that Triston Casas was the top prospect in the organization. I believe that to be true, and I think that’s the majority opinion, but it’s not consensus. There are certainly those who would take Downs ahead of him, and it’s not an opinion without merit. The top piece to come back in the Mookie Betts trade (at the time, at least), Downs provides a ceiling of a guy who can make All-Star games pretty regularly while holding down second base. He came up as a shortstop and can probably still play there some, but he’s being developed as a second baseman both because Bogaerts exists and because he’s better suited there.

2021 Spring Training: Boston Red Sox v. Minnesota Twins Photo by Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The bat plays at second base, though. He has a very good all-around skillset at the plate that doesn’t really include any plus tools but a bunch of good ones. He can hit the ball with solid contact, he has a nice approach, and there is real pop in the bat. There are still some questions here for sure and he’s not a finished product, but there is a realistic outcome where he has above-average tools with both the hit and the power to go with above-average defense at second base, which is a phenomenal player. He’s on the 40-man roster and should start the year in Triple-A, but I wouldn’t expect him to be up until the second half.

Sleeper Prospect

Matthew Lugo

I don’t know if Lugo really counts as a sleeper here since he’s in a lot of top 20s on Red Sox prospect lists, but it still feels like he flies a bit under the radar. He is one of my personal favorites in the organization, though. A shortstop prospect who is also Carlos Beltrán’s nephew, he is very much a sum-of-the-parts type player. There’s certainly not a Downs-type ceiling here for the former second round pick, but he has the potential to put up average tools across the board while sticking at shortstop, which is easily an everyday player. Granted, it’s not at all a sure thing as he has yet to play full-season ball and won’t turn 20 until May, but he’s exactly the kind of prospect that tends to sneak up on people when they get to Double-A and just keep producing.

That’s still a couple years away, though. First he has to conquer the lower levels, which will start this season in Low-A Salem. It will be interesting to see how they balance playing time with a couple other prospects we’ll get to in a second who should also be in Salem, but Lugo is a guy who should not be forgotten in that group, and a name I could see popping up on more radars as the summer goes on.

Other Prospects

  • Speaking of names that could rise up this year, Nick Yorke is already getting hype after the composure he’s shown at the Alternate Site and in camp this spring. The surprise first round pick is already making believers out of fans, and he hasn’t even played a real game yet. That will change this summer when the second baseman is one of those aforementioned players joining Lugo in Salem.
  • The other one in that mix is Brainer Bonaci, making Salem the place to be if you like middle infield prospects. These are three top 20 prospects in the system on the same roster. Bonaci doesn’t even turn 19 until July, and he has yet to play above the DSL, but he has a chance to really pop this season with solid power at the plate as well as plus athleticism at shortstop.
  • Christian Koss was the return from Colorado in the Yoan Aybar trade from this past winter, and he should start this season at High-A Greenville. He’s not the toolsiest player in the world, but he opened eyes at the plate in his pro debut in 2019 and adds a lot of versatility to his profile in the field, making him an intriguing future bench possibility.
  • Cameron Cannon was the team’s first selection the year they picked Lugo, and the former University of Arizona standout is another sleeper in this system. He showed off a good hit tool in college, but hasn’t gotten much of a chance to show it in the pros. He’ll likely be in Greenville this year, and while he still plays some shortstop he’s probably more of a second baseman or third baseman.
  • Antoni Flores is on his last legs in terms of his prospect status. A former big bonus signing on the international market, he has watched his stock rapidly go the wrong way, and then lost his chance to rebound last season. He’s still only 20 years old, though, so if he can show some of the athleticism that he had a few years ago he can very much rebound back to a player to watch.
  • Lyonell James got the team’s third highest bonus in the 2019 international signing period, but hasn’t gotten to debut due to last season being wiped out. There’s a good chance he’ll have to move off shortstop, but there is potential for his bat to play at third base as well.
  • Luis Ravelo got the team’s third highest bonus in this most recent signing period, and profiles to be a plus defensive shortstop.

Division Standing

This is another tough one as the Red Sox have one very clearly great position, and then a giant question mark for the other half of the exercise. To start at the top, I think the Yankees have to be number one here. DJ LeMahieu is easily the best second baseman, and Gleyber Torres has as much upside as any of the shortstops. After that, it gets tougher. I probably go with Toronto, with Marcus Semien at second and Bo Bichette at short, at number two and then the Rays, with Brandon Lowe and Willy Adames, at number three. That leaves Boston at four, but if you ask me again in five minutes I could talk myself into moving them up just because Bogaerts is so good.