The Red Sox infield drama of the spring has been resolved, so how is that working out for Sox fans so far?

Pablo’s Belt, Hanley’s Glove
by Jim Silva

    This spring was quite the fun time for Red Sox Nation. They got to watch a battle to the death between Pablo Sandoval and his appetite with the winner being Travis Shaw. They had the pleasure of watching Hanley Ramirez learn his second new position in two years – this time first base. When you are a fan of a team with as much money as the Red Sox it must be surprising to see shenanigans like this going on at the corners of your infield, but the Red Sox are trying to make the best of two big mistakes they made last year. Let’s look at those moves and the rest of the infield picture for 2016.
    The middle of the infield is set for 2016 and at least a couple years after with two stars turning the double play. The Red Sox appear to have taken the aphorism about being strong up the middle to heart. Dustin Pedroia has never had a bad season in the majors since he became a regular, although his 2015 was besieged by injuries (a problem for our hero over the last few seasons) and caused him to put up his worst numbers, from a cumulative standpoint, of his career. Middle infielders don’t generally age well. They get beat up playing around second base and getting taken out by slides. It will be interesting to see what happens to middle infielder longevity with the change to the sliding rule. I imagine the Pedroia family had an extra serving of crab cakes when that rule change was announced.
    In his prime, Laser Show did almost everything well and has been well loved for it with a Rookie of the Year award, four All Star game appearances, a Silver Slugger, four Gold Gloves, and an MVP award in 2008. He is everything you’d want in a son (if you were a baseball manager) and more! Last year he was off to a great start when his hamstring popped and then re-popped effectively ruining his season. If he can stay healthy it is reasonable to expect an excellent year out of him with the bat. Pedroia has accumulated 45.2 WAR in his 11 seasons (nine full seasons) so if he can have an average season of say 4.0 WAR, then he is a huge asset, especially for a middle infielder. His career slash line of .299/.365/.444 is about what you’d expect from him at this point in his career. Not everything is roses for the Muddy Chicken (this guy has more nicknames than you do!).
    Pedroia used to be good for 20+ stolen bags but dropped to six in 2014 and 2 in his injury-marred 2015. And he shouldn’t steal anymore! He is 8 for his last 16 attempts in the last two seasons which means he is costing the team runs. But that is small potatoes compared to what his aggression running the bases has done to the team. In 2015 Pedroia cost the Red Sox 16 runs. The other area where the numbers are causing questions about how Petey (how many nicknames does a brother need?) is going to age is defense. The numbers over the last several seasons have supported his reputation as an elite defender with DRS from 2011 through 2014 of 18, 11, 15, and 17. But last season, perhaps due to the balky hammy, he dropped to -3. If the Crimson Crocodile (sorry – made that one up – couldn’t help it) can stay healthy this season we will be able to see if this is the beginning of decline or just a statistical anomaly (or maybe his game truly was altered by his injury).
    From the batter’s perspective, the man standing to Pedroia’s left is another potential perpetual All Star – Xander Bogaerts. Finally (Bogaerts was only 22 last season but has been on the Red Sox radar for years now) the young shortstop broke out. His slash line was .320/.355/.421 and represented an 80 point jump in batting average, a 58 point jump in OBP and a 59 point leap in slugging. Bogaerts also stole 10 bags while only being caught twice – he was two for five  in his first full season, 2014. His offensive blossoming earned him the Silver Slugger award as the best hitting shortstop in the American League. One caution for the Red Sox faithful – those lofty offensive stats were compiled on the back of a .372 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) which is pretty lucky and could portend a regression. Or not – Bogaerts is killing it this season with over 100 hits before the All Star break.
    The stats say that the shortstop from Aruba is just an average shortstop with the glove, but that is a step up from where he was just a year ago. In 2014 Xander (who shockingly doesn’t have a nickname) cost the Sox 16 runs due to a lack of range and a scattergun arm, while last season he improved to a DRS of -1 – so basically neutral. Bogaerts has become a top of the order hitter and average defender, which from the shortstop position is extremely valuable. Could he be more? His minor league numbers showed a lot more power than he flashed last year. In high-A/AA he hit 37 doubles and 20 homers – that was in 2012. He even hit 28 doubles and 12 homers in 2014, his first season in the minors. So is he a budding power hitter or a batting average machine? Maybe he is both. If he took a different approach last season to become a top of the order guy because that’s what the Red Sox needed, then that shows that he can make adjustments – a tremendous attribute for a young player. It means he might be able to merge those two players into one and ultimately become a solid glove man who hits 20 homers while hitting .280 – in other words a superstar.
    Ah the corners! Last year the Red Sox made a big, weird splash by spending enough money to choke a horse to sign Pablo Sandoval (5 years and $95 million with an option year) and Hanley Ramirez (4 years and $88 million with an option year). There is nothing wrong with a team with deep pockets like the Red Sox throwing some of their money around to improve the club, but it was widely agreed that what they needed to spend their money on was starting pitching. So the 2015 season started with Sandoval at third and Ramirez making the switch from shortstop, where he was a butcher on the order of Sweeney Todd, to left field. It turned into a complete disaster defensively with the pair combining to cost the team 30 runs.
    So this year the plan coming into spring training was for Sandoval (Kung Fu Panda, and not for his martial arts skills) to get into better shape over the winter, and Hanley to work hard making the switch to first base. One of those two things happened and one didn’t. The Round Mound of Pound (why do the Sox have so many nicknames?) came into camp looking like both of his nicknames and was a butcher at third, but Ramirez by all accounts put in a lot of work and embraced the move back to the infield looking at least decent at first. When teams like the Red Sox say that there is open competition at a position between an expensive veteran and a youngster they almost never mean it. This time it appears that they meant it as they gave the starting third base job to Travis Shaw and benched the Panda.
    Truly the plan went wrong when they signed Sandoval in the first place when they had substantial data to tell them that he wasn’t going to be close to worth the money they offered him. Sandoval wasn’t a bad player. In fact he was a good player whose value came from his ability to switch-hit doubles and 10 to 15 homers without striking out all over the place. A career .287/.339/.451 slash line is worth something, but when your third baseman is 5’11” and weighs 255 pounds you have to know that he isn’t going to age well. Moreover, he was already starting to show that his peak was aberrant when he hit 23 homers and batted .315 as a 24 year old. His highest homer total in the four seasons between that 6.1 WAR season and 2014 was 16 in 2014 with his batting average peaking at .283 in 2012. What he had become was a .278 hitting third baseman who would hit 15 or so homers and get on base at a .330ish clip for a WAR of 3.0ish. Not bad, but not worth $19 million or more than a two year contract. Oh no – not even close. What’s more is that his glove work has been all over the place but trending toward mediocre. In 2011 he developed a reputation based on a truly excellent 14 DRS season. Since then he has had only one season with a positive DRS (4 in 2014) while putting up negative numbers during all his other campaigns (-4 in 2012, -5 in 2013). So what were the Red Sox paying for? They were paying for a superstar in the prime of his career, and what they got was a declining sporadic player with weight problems who rewarded them by putting up his worst season ever in the majors. Panda cost the team 11 runs with the glove according to DRS, hit 25 doubles and 10 homers but posted a slash line of .245/.292/.366 for a WAR of -2.6. They would have done better putting a poster of Rico Petrocelli on a traffic cone at third but letting Sandoval bat against righties (.266 average with all 10 of his homers), and then just taking the automatic out when he had to face a lefty (.197 average and a .231 slugging percentage). It was an expensive nightmare Sox fans will not soon forget, and Sandoval made sure of that by reporting to camp with his gut hanging over his baseball pants.
    The situation with Ramirez wasn’t great either but there is hope. Hanley Ramirez was a legitimate superstar when he was a young shortstop. He averaged 5.8 WAR for his first four years as the starting shortstop for the Marlins (after a trade from the Red Sox) and he combined high batting averages with 25 home run power, but he was just average with the glove at best. But you know, that was a few years ago, and since then he has proven over and over again that he doesn’t have a solid glove at short and would cost his team runs to keep his bat in the lineup. The bat though – wow – it was always good to great. With the Dodgers in 2013 and 2014 Ramirez put up 5.1 and 4.6 offensive WAR respectively. So it wasn’t unreasonable to think that a guy athletic enough to play shortstop could move to the next to the last stop on the defensive spectrum and at least manage not to stink up the joint. But stink it up he did to the tune of -19 DRS with some memorable blunders that made the lowlight reels of Sports Center. Again, this shouldn’t have been a total surprise to the Red Sox brain trust because Han-Ram had an average DRS of -10.4 for the last five seasons at a position he had played for years and he wasn’t exactly lauded for his work ethic.
    But what of his stick? Here is where everyone was surprised. Aside from the 19 home runs, Hanley failed to hit, posting an offensive WAR of 0.8 – more than a point below what you would expect from an average starter in the bigs. His batting average dropped to .249 – well below his career mark of .296, which dragged his on-base percentage below .300 for the first time in his career. Ramirez also mostly stopped running, dropping from 14 successful steals in 2014 to 6 in 2015. This wouldn’t be the first time the dreadie-wearing batsman had an off year and came back, but he is now 32 with many seasons of getting beaten up around the bag. Could it be that he is in decline, or does he have a few more seasons of hitting mastery in him? Unlike Sandoval, Ramirez isn’t carrying around a lot of extra weight and he reported to camp in shape and worked hard to become a decent first baseman. All indications are that he is in for a rebound year at first base. He blistered the ball in spring and it looks like his dip last season might have been due to a banged up shoulder that is now healed. If Hanley can handle first and hit like Hanley then the Red Sox ship might turn in the right direction. So far his first half numbers have been mostly “meh”, especially for a first-baseman. Han-Ram is going to have to step it up to be more than average this season.
    So with Sandoval collecting large sums of money to not play, what do the Red Sox have in Travis Shaw, their new third baseman? Last year Shaw made his major league debut and acquitted himself nicely banging 13 homers in less than half a season (248 plate appearances). He hit .270 with an OBP of .327 not drawing many walks (18) while striking out 57 times. Based on his minor league numbers it is clear that his power is legit as he has banged 69 home runs in the equivalent of just over three seasons. He also showed on-base skills with a minor league career OBP of .359 so perhaps the security of a starting job will allow him to relax and take a few more walks.
    Shaw played first base primarily although he saw five starts at third and played left once. In the minors he played about four times as much at first as he did at third, but still managed almost 900 innings at third. It’s not clear why the Red Sox didn’t try to turn him into a full-time third baseman since that is much more valuable than a first baseman. If he is good enough to play there, then you would think they would put him there and leave him there. So it is reasonable to worry that his glove isn’t good enough to stick at the hot corner. It is clear however that his glove is better than Sandoval’s at this point as Panda’s glove work in spring was described as “unplayable” by people who actually saw him “play”. If Shaw takes to third and is decent then it’s a win for the Red Sox, especially if they can figure out a way to salvage the Panda Predicament. He is lost for the season after a mysterious shoulder injury led to season-ending shoulder surgery. If this disaster of a career turn is enough to light a fire under Sandoval and he can get into shape and play, then the Sox would have a really nice problem on their hands, but not until 2017. One thing to ponder is that in 2017 David Ortiz will have retired and they will need a new fixture at DH. If Panda can resurrect his bat it could be his job.
    Brock Holt and Josh Rutledge made up the infield part of the bench at the start of the season. Holt plays everywhere except catcher, pitcher, and batboy (slacker!) and is a reasonable answer at all of them. He did best at second and in the outfield and worst at third and short, but the fact that he can play everywhere without killing your team makes him truly valuable. His bat isn’t exciting but it is solid which is what makes him such a super sub. He now has 1175 major league plate appearances with a slash line of .277/.338/.376 so he hits like a middle infielder. He also has 21 stolen bases in 24 attempts so while he doesn’t run often, he does it well. The lack of pop with only six home runs in his first 1145 plate appearances is supported by 2070 minor league plate appearances with only 15 “long” balls so don’t expect him to go all Jose Canseco on you just because he has started the season with two homers. One nice development last season was an increase in walks that pushed his OBP from .331 to .349. There isn’t a team that wouldn’t be thrilled to have such a versatile player on their bench and one who can hit a little at that. But as soon as the Red Sox get fancy (trading Pedroia for an arm) and try to make him a starter he just becomes a starter who can hit a little and is ok with the glove.
    Rutledge is confusing. When he played for the Rockies he had moments where it looked like he might be a power-hitting starting middle infielder. Rutledge’s raw offensive stats look kind of like Holt’s with a career slash line of .261/.310/.398. Translated to 162 games they look like this:

Plate Appearances
2b
3b
Home Runs
SB/CS
Holt
652
31
7
4
12/2
Rutledge
548
23
7
11
11/2
Holt has a few more doubles but Rutledge has more home run power. Their stat lines above also show that Holt has better strike zone command than Rutledge does but slugs less. So it wouldn’t be hard to argue for one over the other if you are only talking about their bats. Until last season, Rutledge had only played 2nd and short but the Sox tried him at 3rd a few times. He has played mostly shortstop during his major league and minor league career with a decent amount of time spent manning 2nd and 132 innings at 3rd over the last two seasons in the minors. Unlike Holt, he generally hurts you with the glove. He has never had a positive dWAR in any of his four tours of the bigs so you really don’t want him out there too long. Both his range and fielding percentage are mostly below league average with range being the worse of the two devils. If Holt can hold down the middle while Rutledge can take over at third from time to time where his limited range wouldn’t be as noticeable, the Red Sox might have something. Rutledge and his decent power would be a nice bat to pinch hit for you when you have guys on base you want to drive in, while Holt could pinch hit to start an inning. Not a bad combination to have on the bench.
    Marco Hernandez and Mike Miller are filling in for Holt and Rutledge while they recover from injuries. Both players are place-holders as neither of them can hit a lick. Well, actually Hernandez has shown a decent hit tool, little power but a bit of speed, so it is possible that he could displace Rutledge. Miller and Hernandez both sport legit gloves so in the short term they will hold down the infield fort.
    Down on the farm the Bosox are growing themselves a fine crop of infielders led by third baseman Rafael Devers and second baseman Yoan Moncada. Moncada is getting the most press and looks like his bat and speed (49 steals in 52 attempts) could be devastating. He is at high-A so he could end up in the majors next year if everything breaks right for the 20 year old. Devers is more of a power hitter and so far has delivered on his promise although his 24 walks in 469 at bats is a small concern. That said, the guy can’t legally drink yet (he can barely see R-Rated movies!) and he is already raking at high-A. Ready and waiting at triple-A is glove man Deven Marrero. He is a rangy shortstop who won’t hit for much power or for a high average but will steal a base or 20 when he gets on. He would immediately be the best glove man at short if he joined the parent club but will have to wait for his chance. At 25, he is done cooking and would probably be a better fit for the bench than Rutledge who duplicates many of Holt’s abilities.
    The Red Sox made two bold moves that show they aren’t trying to make friends – their goal is to win and win now. It says a lot that they didn’t hesitate to admit their mistakes benching Sandoval and moving Ramirez to first. If it works, they are geniuses, if it backfires and they don’t win with these moves then angry Red Sox fans will gripe about the stupid signings of last seasons for years to come.

Author: elfuego25

When I'm not writing about baseball (or shoving kettle corn into my mouth at the ballpark), I am probably walking Daisy, who is a very good dog, researching my Portuguese-Irish roots, or wondering when my lovely wife will return from her latest fabulous trip. Yes, life is good!

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