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Red Sox Position Preview: Designated Hitter

Even if he might play a little more outfield, J.D. Martinez is still the Red Sox’s primary designated hitter.

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MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at Boston Red Sox Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to our annual positional preview series, in which we take stock of where the Red Sox stand everywhere on the depth chart for each position. At every spot on the diamond, we will look at where Boston stands on the major league roster while also looking at their top prospects at the position. We will also compare how the Red Sox look at the position compared to the rest of the division. Today, we cover designated hitter.

Starter

J.D. Martinez

Martinez will be playing some more outfield than usual this year given the Red Sox’s thin depth on that part of the roster, but he’ll do most of his work at designated hitter once again. While imagining Martinez roaming right field at Fenway Park might be a scary thought for the Red Sox, seeing him in the batter’s box should still make opponents sweat, even if it’s not to the same degree as in his prime.

Martinez bounced back from a miserable 2020 last season to turn in the third best campaign by a designated hitter, trailing only Shohei Ohtani and Yordan Alvarez in fWAR among those who qualified for the batting title at the position. He might have even challenged for a higher spot on the list if he had matched his first-half efforts (143 wRc+, 10.1 percent walk rate) in the second half (105 wRC+, 6.4 percent walk rate) or if he didn’t go chasing so often; however, his batted ball rates were still pretty strong, as he ranked in the 90th percentile in hard hit rate and average exit velocity as well as the 81st percentile in barrel rate, leading to elite marks in his expected batting results.

In terms of what to expect this season, most projections like him to be a little more than a two-win player who hits 17 to 23 percent above league average and winds up with somewhere between 25 and 30 home runs. Sounds like a good deal to me.

Backup

Travis Shaw

Unlike other positions, there is never really a true backup at DH, a position often used as a way to shuffle players around and get them some rest from time to time. For teams with full-time DHs like Martinez, there are even fewer opportunities, but the Red Sox will definitely give others some shots. FanGraphs projects Bobby Dalbec to have the second-most plate appearances at DH for the Red Sox behind Martinez, but Travis Shaw seems like the best option among players without full-time roles of their own. Shaw hasn’t been a league average hitter or better since 2018, but there’s still some pop in his bat. Beyond Shaw, we’ll likely see Dalbec, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and a few other regulars get some swings at DH as well.

Depth

Ronaldo Hernández

Just like there are no real DH backups, there are no real DH prospects. Even some of the best to ever do it come up as corner infielders or outfielders before they move to DH full-time. Hernández doesn’t play any of those positions, but he’s on the expanded roster and is much more lauded for his bat than anything he does behind the dish. Sounds like the makings of a DH to me, especially if he builds on his 2021 efforts, when he notched 46 extra-base hits across 363 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A. In addition, following the same reasoning as Matt wrote about in the first base preview, Roberto Ramos is someone who could also get some play.

Top Prospect

Triston Casas

Maybe I should have just made everything below the Martinez section a link to Matt’s first base preview. Casas is clearly who the Red Sox want to pencil in at first base for the next decade, especially if Dalbec can’t cut down on the strikeouts, but that doesn’t mean Casas won’t DH as well. The No. 17 prospect in all of baseball, according to FanGraphs, Casas is an incredibly skilled hitter who has shown prodigious power and a sensational eye while projecting to be pretty pedestrian in the field. To make sure they can get his bat in the order as much as possible, the Red Sox may give Casas some DH work in addition to first base responsibilities.

Sleeper Prospect

Joe Davis

Davis is definitely a sleeper prospect, but that doesn’t mean he’s unknown. The former standout for the Houston Cougars, Davis posted a .509 slugging percentage across two levels of Single-A ball last season, mashing 19 home runs along the way. He also produced solid overall numbers in batting average (.297) and on-base percentage (.345), although those rates took a dive when he was promoted to the Greenville Drive from the Salem Red Sox. Davis is already 25, so he might not have as high a ceiling as others, but if he can adjust to the upper levels of pitching, he might have a shot at putting a few over the Green Monster one day.

Other prospects of note

  • Hudson Potts is someone worth mentioning in this discussion. SoxProspects has this to say about him: “Projects as a power-first organizational bat.” In other words, he’s a perfect fit for DH. Although he is a third baseman by trade, Potts isn’t going to overtake Devers or some of the Red Sox’s better infield prospects anytime soon, but he can still mash a little, making him a potential fit at DH in the future. In Double-A last season, he hit 11 home runs in 281 at-bats and although the rest of his batting production (.217/.264/.399) was underwhelming, maybe there’s enough juice in his bat to keep him relevant.
  • Alex Binelas is another corner infield prospect who is much better known for his offense than his defense. Acquired as part of the trade that brought back Jackie Bradley Jr., Binelas slashed .314/.379/.636 in 118 at-bats in Single-A last season after being selected in the third round of the 2021 MLB Draft. I like Binelas’ potential more than Potts’, but the 21-year-old is obviously a bit further back in his development.

Division Standing

Martinez may have ranked third in fWAR among full-time DHs last season, but he was fourth in wRC+ behind Ohtani, Alvarez and Giancarlo Stanton, who was just as good, if not better, in the second half as he was in the first. In addition, the projections like Stanton a bit better than Martinez this year, so, as much as it pains me to write this, Stanton deserves the top spot right now. Since the rest of the division will likely split up the DH role quite a bit more than the Yankees and Red Sox, I’ll give Martinez the second spot, but if Vladimir Guerrero Jr. starts getting more time at DH than first base, then these rankings could get a huge shakeup.

  1. Giancarlo Stanton, NYY
  2. J.D. Martinez, BOS
  3. Randy Arozarena/Yandy Díaz, TBR
  4. Teoscar Hernández/Alejandro Kirk, TOR
  5. Trey Mancini/Ryan Mountcastle, BAL