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One Big Question: Can Jonathan Araúz carve out a full-time bench role?

He’s shown intriguing flashes, but is there more to be unearthed?

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Boston Red Sox vs Tampa Bay Rays Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

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 Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. 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, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously the lockout may change the timing on the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, we start today with Jonathan Araúz.

The Question: Can Jonathan Araúz stick on a contender’s active roster?

Before Garrett Whitlock received all of his well-deserved praise for his performance in 2021 after being taken in last winter’s Rule 5 Draft, it was Jonathan Araúz that started this new trend of Rule 5 pick ups for the Chaim Bloom-run Red Sox. It was a bit of a different circumstance, of course, with the Red Sox picking a bit lower in that draft and also not quite getting the same level of success. Still, Araúz was an intriguing young infielder who did indeed manage to stay on the active roster for the entire 2020 season, albeit with some help from a shortened schedule as well as a bad team that could play more for the future than the current season.

His sticking on the roster for the entirety of 2020 allowed him to remain in the organization beyond that season, and in 2021 Araúz was able to get some more normal development in Triple-A for that season, with a few stints in the majors as well. The infielder showed some flashes in both 2020 and 2021, but overall the production is still marginal enough that it is worth wondering whether the now-23-year-old will be able to play well enough to be considered a viable bench option for a Red Sox team that presumably views itself as a contender for the 2022 season and beyond.

At this point, I think it’s fair to say that Araúz at least provides some value as a player with minor-league options who can come up and fill emergency space on the bench as someone who can competently play both middle infield positions. But as we know, there is a gulf between that profile and one who can stay all season on a bench and sub into the starting lineup as injuries arise.

So far, the numbers don’t suggest Araúz has reached that level. In fairness to him, his numbers at the major-league level have real small sample concerns, although it could also be considered as a mark against him that he’s only received 155 plate appearances between the 2020 and 2021 seasons at the highest level. In those plate appearances, the switch hitter has put up a .219/.301/.343 line for a 75 wRC+ that, by this metric’s measure, suggests he has been 25 percent worse than the league-average hitter. At Triple-A Worcester last season the numbers were better, but still not all that remarkable as he finished with a .245/.326/.365 line over 267 plate appearances.

If you’re looking for reasons for optimism with Araúz’s long-term standing beyond his young age, I’d point most emphatically to his ability to draw walks and work solid plate appearances. In his short time in the majors he was drawn walks over 10 percent of the time, which is no small feat considering he had barley played above High-A when he got his first taste of major-league pitching. Araúz is a very patient hitter with a swing rate well below league-average according to Baseball Savant’s numbers, and with a strikeout rate that hovers around league-average there is a viable approach here. It’s not something you always see from a player with his lack of experience against the best pitchers in the world.

On the other hand, it may be holding him back from really capitalizing on his potential at the plate. Patience is certainly a good thing at the plate and the Red Sox organization regularly got to opposing pitching staffs with an ultra-patient approach in the 2000s, but there is such thing as too much, especially in this era of shortened outings that allow pitchers to throw more often with max effort. Sometimes, as the 2018 Red Sox emphatically demonstrated, it’s best to jump early and often on pitches in the zone.

Araúz has not taken this more aggressive approach to heart, it seems, with his career 55 percent swing rate on pitches in the zone (again, per Baseball Savant) coming in a little more than 17 percent lower than league-average. And perhaps relatedly, he is having trouble barreling the baseball, with a hard-hit rate 20 percent below league-average and a barrel rate a whopping 71 percent worse than league-average. Granted, scouts never expected Araúz to regularly crush the baseball, but he needs to get closer to league-average with his quality of contact if he’s going to be stick in the majors in any capacity.

That being said, we’re not talking about the potential for Araúz to start for a contending team, so the bar is certainly lower. He doesn’t need to be a league-average hitter to be a viable bench player, especially because he brings other skills with solid base running skills and defense that can be played at three spots on the infield. The defensive metrics, for whatever it may be worth, have not liked him at second base, which has been his most-played position, but the sample is small enough that I feel comfortable relying more on the eye test, which to me suggests he’s just fine as a replacement.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

And of course, it would not be fair to mention any of this without again referencing his age and relative lack of experience. One of the difficult parts of the Rule 5 Draft is not only finding talented players, but finding talented players who are ready for the leap to the majors. As alluded to above, when Araúz was taken he had all of 28 games above High-A, and no experience as high as Triple-A. He as also in his age-21 season. Last season, he was still only 22 and while he was on a roster in 2020 he hardly played. That was something of a catch-up season for him, and as he enters 2022 in his age-23 season, he just now is feeling age- and experience-appropriate for where he is in the organization.

Still, we’re approaching the third season for Araúz in the organization and he’ll all but certainly be burning his second minor-league option in the upcoming season. This is a big one for him to prove that he not only deserves a spot in a major-league organization, but a legitimate role off the bench for a contending club. We haven’t seen that quality performance at the plate, but if he can get a little more aggressive as he continues to get comfortable at levels to which he was rushed the last two seasons, he could take another step with his bat and be the kind of utility infield option good teams need to get through the marathon regular season.

Thanks to FanGraphs and Baseball Savant for statistics in this post.