Move Over Mookie (to LA) – Alex Verdugo is Here To Stay!

Mookie, don’t go! I am sure the screams can be heard halfway to Cape Cod as Mookie Betts packs his locker and walks away from Fenway for – well, at least one season. He will be a free agent at the end of his 2020 season and could go right back to Boston if that’s what he and the Red Sox want. But for now, Mookie is a Dodger and Los Angeles is abuzz! Although I am not in Boston, it would not shock me if their local sports radio is all gloom and doom over this trade.  He was a favorite son and by all accounts a good guy, famously feeding some downtown Boston homeless folk after a game 2 win in the World Series. No matter what the Sox got back in a Betts deal, fans were going to be unhappy because Betts would no longer be on the team. And while the trade was a bit crazy with its on again off again theatre, the final product is more interesting than the original iteration of the deal. Let’s examine the trade from the Red Sox perspective and look at their now Mookie-less outfield.

The original trade had the Red Sox sending Mookie Betts and David Price with some money to offset some of Price’s contract to the Dodgers and receive Brusdar Graterol (from the Twins) and Alex Verdugo. While Verdugo is still moving to Boston, Graterol’s medicals held up the Boston/Minnesota part of the deal, so now Graterol is heading to the Dodgers and the Red Sox are getting two Dodger prospects instead – Connor Wong and Jeter Downs. As exciting as Graterol was – a pitcher who can throw over 100 MPH – it seems as though most scouts were in agreement that he was going to be a reliever instead of a starter, which diminishes his value. Graterol has had both elbow and shoulder issues and hasn’t thrown many innings as the Twins tried to keep him on the field by babying his arm. Of the two new prospects coming to Boston in the deal, Jeter is definitely the more exciting youngster in spite of the reactions Sox fans might have to his first name – maybe they will think of it as finally having their own Jeter.

Connor Wong can catch and play multiple positions – which is an unusual defensive profile – and he has some power. With a career minor league slash line of .275/.342/.510 and 48 home runs in 904 at bats, he has some offensive tools and at 23 made it to double-A last year. If he can stay at catcher and the Red Sox can improve his hitting approach (his hit tool is projected as a 35 on an 80 scale), then he is going to be a valuable piece of the deal. Otherwise he could become a nice bench piece with some pop and excellent positional flexibility.

Jeter Downs – how ironic that he is now a Boston shortstop – was the Dodgers #6 prospect according to BA (Baseball America) and that’s saying a lot when you look at how deep LA’s system is. Downs is a bat-first guy as a shortstop who scouts believe will eventually end up at second base, but his bat appears good enough to be valuable even if he moves off of short. Downs, the 32nd overall pick of the 2017 draft, is 21 and reached double-A last season. The former Reds and Dodgers top prospect has some power – 43 homers in 1087 minor league at bats, and some speed – 69 bags swiped in 92 attempts, and he seems to be a “greater than the sum of his parts” type player. None of his tools scout above 50, but he has a little bit of everything going on including a walk rate consistently above 10%. His isolated power went up substantially last season and he has posted wRC+ numbers well over 100 at each stop since 2018. If he sticks at short then he should be an above average offensive shortstop. If he gets pushed to second he should still be a decent starter in the majors if he continues his current progression. Everyone, even the Red Sox, needs their own Jeter.

On to the outfield which obviously no longer includes Mookie Betts. Alex Verdugo, who came over in the trade, was ranked the 35th best prospect in baseball before the 2019 season where he established himself as a starter for the Dodgers. Verdugo might take some time to grow on Sox fans because he isn’t a classic masher in right, although he isn’t without power – 12 homers in 377 PAs last year for LA. His hit tool and arm are his best rated tools both projecting as 60s and he is already manifesting both in the majors. He slashed .294/.342/.475 in LA – an excellent pitcher’s park for a wRC+ of 114 in his first lengthy taste of big league pitching. A strained oblique ended his season prematurely which may have benefitted the Red Sox in this deal as it probably held his cost down. The lefty will start the year as a 23 year old and isn’t eligible for free agency until 2025 – that’s a lot of team control for the Dodgers to give up for a year of Betts, unless they feel confident that they can sign their new star to a contract at the end of the season. Verdugo looks like he could be a star and the Dodgers might live to regret this move.

In the other corner outfield spot, the Red Sox just signed Andrew Benintendi to a two year deal for $10 million buying out two years of arbitration. The Sox starting left fielder had a disappointing season in 2019 where he slashed .266/.343/.431 with only 13 bombs, but it looks like a lot of small injuries may have combined to hurt his swing and derail his season even though he still managed to play in 138 games. The former #7 overall pick has been durable in the past and is only 25 so hopefully 2019 was an aberration and we will see the Benintendi who played 151 and 148 games respectively in 2017 and 2018. The big question about Benintendi is whether or not this is all there is. You just don’t see a lot of 70 tools (his hitting tool is projected at 70) or 65 overall value projections, so the expectation is superstar and he just isn’t there yet. 2018 looked like he was going in the right direction with a .290/.366/.465 slash line good for a 122 wRC+ and a WAR of 4.4. That season is now bookended by seasons of 102 and 100 wRC+ and twin 2.0 WAR seasons which is far less than what one would expect from a 65 future value left fielder like Benintendi. Not to make Boston fans even more frightened, but two numbers that are concerning are the slight decrease in his walk rate in 2019 when it dipped below 10%, and his increased K rate which ballooned to 22.8% after two seasons of 17% and 16%. Both of those numbers need to trend back in the other direction pronto or Benintendi isn’t going to get close to his projections. It would be nice to say that young Andrew got unlucky but his BABIP of .333 was 10 points above his career average so that’s not a valid take. If you want to dream a bit, he did increase his hard hit rate quite a bit to 38.1% which is higher than his career rate of 33.2% so maybe that portends a barrage of home runs next season in a huge bounce back season for the diminutive lefty. Red Sox fans have everything crossed on this one!

Which leaves center field to JBJ – Jackie Bradley Jr. – who (sorry Boston faithful) just can’t hit like you thought he would after that incredible 2016 season where he generated 5.3 WAR . Bradley is 29 and has three seasons in a row with wRC+ numbers of 89, 90, and 90 so, in spite of his 21 homers last year, he has to play well above average defense to justify a starting spot – and lucky for you Red Sox fans, he has! JBJ won a Gold Glove in 2018 and up until last season was well-loved by the defensive metrics. 2019 might have been an aberration or it could be that at almost 30 years old, Bradley Jr.’s glove work is dropping off a bit. SInce that 5.3 WAR season he has posted WAR numbers of 2.2, 2.8, and last season’s 1.4. I would throw my money behind another excellent defensive season from the centerfield fixture for the Red Sox even if that just gets him back to 2.0 WAR. The bat though – that probably isn’t going anywhere until it inevitably declines with age and JBJ’s glove can no longer make up for all the outs he makes. Right now he is a low average, high strikeout bat with some pop – he slashed .225/.317/.421 in 2019 which is right in line with his career numbers. His hard hit rates and BABIP were also in line with his career numbers so there isn’t much to hope on there. Appreciate the glove and good base running, and live with the bat until you find the second coming of Tris Speaker (the franchise’s best center fielder).

Beyond the starters, there’s not a lot to be excited about on the bench or at triple-A, but there are two top 10 Red Sox prospects lower down who look like they will stick in center. Jarren Duran might be the heir apparent to JBJ but after dominating two levels in his 2018 debut and then high-A at the start of 2019, he hit a bit of a wall in double-A. Duran is wicked fast and has a 55 hit tool projection. If he can get through double-A this season, then he might get a chance to dethrone Bradley Jr. in 2021. Way far down on the farm is another speedster named Gilberto Jimenez, the Red Sox #8 prospect according to BA. Jimenez is only 18 and will probably start 2020 at low-A so it isn’t likely that he will be eating lobster rolls anytime soon, but the Dominican center fielder hit everything in his 2018 stateside debut as well as his 2019 short-season campaign. Jimenez is raw but has slashed .338/.388/.470 in 491 professional at bats so he is worth watching to see if raw translates into stud as he moves to full season ball.

Dodgers fans are psyched to have Mookie Betts in their outfield and for good reason, but the Betts deal is a good one for Boston. They saved a ton of money and received an outfielder who has already shown he can play in the majors and could turn into a star on the cheap for years to come. If Verdugo wins a Gold Glove and a batting title during his tenure in Boston, which isn’t that far fetched, and Betts leaves LA after a non-World Series season, then the Sox win this trade. In addition, they get to reset the salary cap penalty clock which means they can start spending money again in 2021 which could mean an extension to their competitive window. And if Downs or Wong become starters in the majors, this trade could go down as a genius move by new Sox GM, Chaim Bloom. In the meantime, the outfield will be good to excellent depending on how Benintendi bounces back and how Verdugo adjusts to the American League game and life on the East Coast. JBJ will be JBJ and you need to love what he is and get past what he isn’t. Now your pitching on the other hand…

Red Sox Offense – Early Season Blip or Signs of Rot?

It is early in the season so not all is at it seems – Cody Bellinger is probably not going to hit .440 – but the symbolic dividing line between hitters on the Sox with positive WAR and those with 0 or negative WAR is David Price, a starting pitcher. Even that line is a little blurry because two of the players listed above Price have negative Offensive WAR numbers but enough positive defensive WAR to push their overall WAR above 0. Of the seven players listed above Price, only five of them are full-time players. The other two are Michael Chavis, who is a rookie and a former first round pick who is raking in very part-time play, and Christian Vazquez, who is getting most of the catching starts in spite of his 75 wRC+ primarily because of his great defense (3.5 dWAR so far). This raises two questions – is this bifurcated offensive identity real and can the Red Sox win with this many holes in their lineup if it is real? Let’s try to answer the first question – how much of the Sox early season offensive profile is real?

The Red Sox outfield is made up of a superstar in Mookie Betts, a defensive star in Jackie Bradley Jr. (JBJ), and an up and coming star in Andrew Benintendi. Bradley, in spite of his tools and his incredible defensive skills, is a disappointment because he is not the superstar the Red Sox hoped he might become. He looks the part of a star and seemed to be on his way in 2016 when, as a 26 year old, he posted a 5.3 WAR season. As you will hear in this blog quite often, expectation is the killer of many a career and with JBJ, a change of scenery would probably do him some good. In another park he wouldn’t be seen as a disappointment for “merely” putting up defense driven 2+ WAR seasons with occasional streaks of great offense. What Red Sox fans are seeing right now is the worst of JBJ’s offense as he slashed .150/.233/.188 in his first 91 plate appearances. Is that real? No – Bradley is a much better hitter than that and will rebound given time and health.

Mookie Betts is cruising along having an excellent season in line with most of his pre-2018 career, but interestingly his BABIP is quite low for him (.284) which portends good times ahead for Mookie fans and the Red Sox. Even if his offensive numbers stay right where they are for the rest of the season, Mookie will still have contributed star-level offense, although it wouldn’t be his 2018 185 wRC+ effort. He is sitting right around 122 with his career wRC+ at 134. Yes, there is probably more coming from Mookie.

Andrew Benintendi is only 24 but already has contributed 7.4 WAR to the Sox in parts of four seasons and is widely thought to have untapped power potential. So far Benintendi has been remarkably consistent and is within six points of all three career slash line stats. Two possible areas of concern for the Sox would be Benintendi’s spiked strikeout rate which sits at 23.9% up from his career rate of 17.4%, and a BABIP rate of .358 which might indicate a bit of a slide coming as his good luck catches up with him. On a happy note, his hard hit rate is up which might account for his high BABIP (line drives are harder to catch) and might be a sign that more balls will leave the yard off his bat this year.  Basically, Benintendi is young and quite good but his numbers are in line with what he has been in the past, so while there is plenty of room for growth, don’t bet the farm on it happening right now. To summarize the situation in the outfield, Betts and Bradley are not doing what they did last year and will almost certainly improve upon their start (especially JBJ). Benintendi is right in line with what he did last season and with his career numbers; he is young and his power could break out any time. He is not the reason the Sox are slow out of the gate but if his power breaks out, he could put them on his back and drag them back into contention.

J.D. Martinez is a designated hitter who moonlights as a fourth outfielder. By “moonlight” I mean he only does it part of the time and he isn’t really good at it, but the kids need braces so… Martinez is such a great hitter that a team could almost justify playing him at shortstop just to get his bat in the lineup! UZR/150 and DRS are in agreement that he is a poor outfielder, but last season he put together a 170 wRC+ year after a 167 wRC+ year in 2017. That is elite hitting and it makes him worth a lot of money. Martinez hits for a high average (.294 for his career, but .303 in 2017 and .330 last season), hits for power (88 home runs in his last two campaigns), and gets on base (.402 OBP in his 5.9 WAR 2018 season). Martinez is off to another excellent start with a bit less power so far. At 31, he will start to decline at some point, but this year his offensive output should be close to what it has been the last two years. So maybe a little more power coming soon, but other than that he is probably already doing what is expected.

The Red Sox infield has some stars too, although it isn’t quite as locked down as the outfield. The most interesting of the lot is Rafael Devers, the 22 year old 3rd baseman who already has over 800 plate appearances in the majors. What makes Devers so interesting you ask? Well, his power for one thing – scouts project him at 70 raw power and he is already getting to some of that in games (21 home runs last season in 121 games). The rest of Devers’ game is a work in progress from his defense, which hasn’t been good so far, to his control of the strike zone, which seems to be improving this season (strikeout rate down and walk rate up), to his batted ball profile which, uh, well it is radically different so far this season with a ground ball rate of almost 56% (career rate of 48.3%) and a fly ball rate of 20.3% (career rate of 35.2%).  Devers is also without a home run to start the year even though his hard hit ball rate is around his career rate and his soft hit ball rate is significantly down – no matter how hard you beat it into the ground, it ain’t leavin’ the yard! We are talking about only 114 plate appearances so far, so it will be really interesting to see if this is the new normal for Devers. Is this the result of a changed swing path, a different approach at the plate, the pitchers working him differently, or just the result of small sample size hijinks? Time will tell.

While Devers might be the most interesting guy on the dirt part of the field, Xander Bogarts is the best all around infielder on the Red Sox. Bogarts is a 4.5 WAR shortstop with power (23 home runs in his breakout 2018 campaign), a career .284 hitter, and a solid defender depending on which metric you use to measure him (0.1 UZR/150 for his career but 9.3 so far this season). If you are looking for a knock on him, he doesn’t run as much as he used to with only 8 steals last season and none so far in 2019, but you are still looking at one of the best all around shortstops in baseball and he is only 26. The Red Sox just locked  him up with a big, new contract. The start of his season looks a lot like his 2018 season so looking for Boston to improve their offense based on some kind of improvement from Xander is probably misguided. With his hit tool and newly developed power, he is an offensive force, but he is already showing that this season.

2nd base has been the home of Dustin Pedroia for quite some time, and the 35 year old might be nearing the end of his string due to a knee injury that has necessitated multiple surgeries. It is hard to count out a player like Pedroia who would probably play on crutches if they let him, but it isn’t looking good for Petey. He is currently out with more knee problems and is unlikely to return until mid-May at the earliest. Pedroia has only 34 plate appearances since the end of the 2017 season which makes it impossible to know if he will hit even if he does come off the IL. In the meantime, Eduardo Nunez took over at second until he too ended up on the IL. Nunez is close to completing his rehab stint although he has had a rough start to 2019 after a mediocre 2018 (78 wRC+). Nunez is 31 and versatile, but doesn’t steal a lot of bases anymore and doesn’t walk enough to be much of an asset with the bat (.289 OBP in 2018) considering his middling power. If he bounces back to look something like he did in 2017 then his versatility has some appeal in limited stints even if his glove is weak. If he looks like his 2018 self then there are other options who will make fewer outs and play better defense. He is not as bad as his early 2019 numbers say he is, but how much rope will the Red Sox allow him when they have options?

One of those options, Brock Holt, is also injured. After dealing with a scratched cornea, Holt is now out with a sore shoulder. Holt has been awful so far but we are only talking about 19 plate appearances. He is coming off his most productive year with the bat in 2018 when he put up 109 wRC+. Holt is also versatile and if he can get past his injuries, he should post better numbers than Nunez with the bat and with the glove. If Holt can’t make it back, then the most interesting option still standing is rookie infielder, Michael Chavis. Chavis has power and since 2017, has learned to take a walk. He is not a natural second baseman, having played about 11 games at second base – and that includes 6 games this season in the majors. Chavis has primarily been a 3rd baseman, but should be able to hold down the position enough to support his bat if he continues to hit the way he has. You shouldn’t expect him to slug over .600 like he has so far in his first 28 plate appearances, but if he could slug .400 and get on base 33% of the time or so (.436 so far), then he is most likely the best solution at the moment. Chavis might provide enough of an injection of offense to boost the Sox production from a position that has so far been a black hole. Second base has been a disaster until recently so this is another position where it looks like things could improve quite a bit.

Mitch Moreland gets the heavy side of the first base platoon that he shares with Steve Pearce so let’s talk about Moreland first. Moreland hits for good power with three seasons in a row of more than 20 home runs (until last season when he only managed 15), doesn’t hit for much average – a career .251 hitter so far – finally got to a 10% walk rate which bumped his OBP to .325, 8 points over his career rate, and plays solid defense. It is a bit odd to see a team like the Red Sox using a platoon at first base because one would expect them to flex their financial muscle to pay for a beast to cover first base full time. It is a reminder that the salary cap forces every team to make decisions based on salary at some point. Moreland is a decent player but just a notch above replacement level. The same can’t be said of last year’s World Series MVP, Steve Pearce, who gets the short end of the first base platoon and yet still produced nearly 1.6 WAR last season in only 251 plate appearances. The reason Pearce is so valuable in such a modest amount of playing time is his ability to get on base and hit for power against lefties, while also playing good defense at first base. His offensive profile differs from Moreland in that he makes fewer outs because of his batting average that has exceeded .280 in two of the last three seasons and his walk rate, which has topped the 10% mark in two of the last three seasons. As a pair (Steith Pearland?) they make a 2.5 – 3 WAR first baseman who hits 30 or so home runs, hits .260 or so, gets on base about 33% of the time, and plays good defense. It’s a nice job share but both guys are aging and off to slow starts, although Moreland has hit 8 dingers in spite of his .213 average and .290 OBP. Pearce is 36 and Moreland is 33 and both men are on expiring contracts. Next year the Red Sox might shift direction and abandon the platoon, but what about this year? If both men have truly hit the steep part of the decline phase of their careers at the same time, then the Red Sox are in some trouble although it is unlikely that both guys are just done. Moreland is hitting the ball harder than ever and suffering through a .177 BABIP start to his season, while Pearce has such a small sample size that it is hard to make any judgements. Pearce is dealing with a sub-.200 BABIP to date so it would seem that both men should see at least some bounce back toward the mean as the season progresses, which can only positively impact the Red Sox offense. So first base is likely to see an upward trend in production, either through an improvement by the incumbents or through a mid-season acquisition if the Red Sox decide there platoon has expired.

Catcher is not likely to be the position that rescues the Red Sox season at the plate as Christian Vazquez doesn’t get paid to hit, which is good because he mostly doesn’t. Vazquez and Sandy Leon make up the catching tandem now that Blake Swihart has been kicked off the island. Neither Sox catcher can hit a lick. That may sound harsh, and you could argue that they each have the potential to hit based on a half season here or a 200 appearance stretch there, but really, other than the occasional long ball, both men are giant out eaters. Vazquez is getting the lion’s share of playing time and has a career wRC+ of 67 and is currently sitting at 74. His career slash line of .244/.295/.342 is not inspiring but when compared to Leon’s slash line of .225/.288./.337 and wRC+ of 65 so you can see why Vazquez gets the nod more often. To be fair, both men are fantastic defensive catchers and last year the Red Sox offense could easily carry them and their anemic sticks. This year, well, they are still great defenders and there isn’t really anyone the Sox can go out and grab, so they are just going to have enjoy the great pitch framing and game calling and get their offense elsewhere because unless one of them catches fire, Boston needs to look away when they step into the box with a stick in their hands.

The Red Sox are currently sandwiched between the Royals and Orioles at 20th in baseball for wRC+ whereas last season they finished 4th. They are not going to sit at 20th for the rest of the season but they also aren’t going to finish in the top five. Last year almost everything came together including breakouts by Mookie and Bogarts, great performances from Benintendi and Martinez, a career year from Brock Holt, and solid performances from players like Devers, Bradley, and their first base platoon. 2019 has not gone so smoothly and frankly outside of their two young stars and Devers, the position players are aging – everyone who was counted on to start is on the wrong side of 30 except JBJ and Vazquez who are there for their gloves, not their bats. Bogarts and JD Martinez are the only two full-time players who are hitting at the same level as their 2018 season. That is not a formula for offensive growth and decline is inevitable. The Red Sox won’t be this bad the rest of the year and will finish in the top half in wRC+ due in large part to some bounce back from the first base duo and JBJ, an improvement at second base via improved health, or possibly contributions from Chavis. But that isn’t enough to carry them to 108 wins again, and unless their pitching can pick up the slack – their pitching without last year’s closer, Craig Kimbrel, or setup man, Joe Kelly, – they might not be able to climb over the Yankees or the surprising Rays. That would be quite a fall from a World Series victory, but with about 80% of the season left it is too early to get rid of your Charlie Card for the subway ride to Fenway.