Allen Craig and Daniel Nava

The Depth of Despair: Reviewing Boston’s Disappointing Bench

I like Joe Gunkel. First of all, his name is Joe Gunkel. That should be enough right there. He’s not an especially exciting prospect but… actually, it occurs to me maybe you have no idea who Joe Gunkel is. That’s fair. It’s preferable even. Life is short and we have families, friends, work, and play and there is rarely time to learn about the Red Sox minor league system down to what we’ll call the Joe Gunkel Level.

So let’s do this quickly: Gunkel is a pitching prospect. The Red Sox picked him in the 13th round of the 2013 draft and he doesn’t throw hard so now you know what you need to know about Joe Gunkel. The thing of it is, I love prospects like Gunkel. He gets outs. He commands the strike zone. Those are skills I believe are under-rated amongst the scouting set. Compare Gunkel to Trey Ball and Ty Buttrey, two high-bonus high-round pitchers the Red Sox drafted in recent years now struggling in the low minors while Gunkel is having success in Double-A.

But if he does end up with a moderately valuable major league career it won’t be with the Red Sox. Gunkel was traded to Baltimore Wednesday for Alejandro De Aza, an outfielder with some power and… well, that’s really about it. De Aza is a depth piece, someone acquired in season when the back end of your roster isn’t good enough, isn’t major league quality. And that’s what makes it so odd. This deal is an indictment of the depth on the Red Sox roster.

It’s strange because at the beginning of the season Boston’s depth was one of the great things about the club’s roster. Recall during the off-season people saying, “What are they going to do with all those outfielders? They have too many! They’ll have to trade some of them for sure!” And now not only have they not traded any, they’ve traded for another one!

At the beginning of the season the Red Sox outfield consisted of Hanley Ramirez, Mookie Betts, Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Allen Craig, and Rusney Castillo, six guys with a case for starting (not to mention Jackie Bradley Jr.). But two months into the season, they’ve all fallen apart. Ramirez has hit but his defense has been so bad he’s tossed all that value right back where it came from. Betts has struggled in his first full season in the majors, though his defense has been good for the most part. Victorino has been in and out of the lineup and played decently while healthy. Nava has been bad and is now hurt. Allen Craig has been worse and is now in Triple-A. Castillo has been an adventure in the outfield, alternatively making great plays and head-scratching ones. Oh, and he hasn’t hit, either. Out of six possible good hitters the team has one. Out of six possible good defenders the team has one or two. Victorino, Craig, and Nava have been complete zeroes. How can you construct a productive outfield out of that? Answer: you can’t!

At the beginning of the season Boston’s depth was one of the great things about the club’s roster.

In the infield, Mike Napoli spent the better part of two months not hitting at all, but there was nobody to step in for him because Ortiz can’t play first base and Nava can’t hit. The recent struggles of Pablo Sandoval have highlighted the one depth player who has played well: Brock Holt. Holt has played every position except pitcher and catcher this season and done it all with acceptable defense. He’s not hit exceptionally, well but then if he could hit exceptionally well he wouldn’t be a depth player. There is no room to complain about Brock Holt’s performance except for this one thing: he can only play one position at a time.

Then we get to catcher. It’s difficult to kill the team for this because how do you predict a 23-year-old catcher to miss the season due to Tommy John surgery? Losing Ryan Hanigan was a bit more predictable considering his history and age, even if the injury itself was fluky. Both of those injuries lead to the acquisition of Sandy Leon, who is clearly stretched as a co-starting catcher but because Boston’s other catcher is now 23-year-old Blake Swihart, that’s the role he’s having to fill. The Red Sox aren’t last in offensive production from catchers but they are 26th.

The Red Sox have failed spectacularly so far this season and a large portion of that is because of previous reliable players like Sandoval, Napoli, Ortiz, and the like. But some portion of that has been because the team didn’t have anyone save Holt to step in and play adequately while the stars were hurt or finding themselves. The team’s plans for Nava and Craig, two infield/outfield types slated for the bench, fell flat because neither hit a lick. Nava is the owner of a .440 OPS this season while Craig’s is .430. Perhaps it’s not surprising the Red Sox are dead last in offensive production from right fielders. Even the Phillies’ right fielders have been better and their right fielder is Jeff Francoeur, who was trying to make it as a pitcher in Triple-A last season.

So who is at fault here? There must be someone. We knew Allen Craig couldn’t hit, right? Except the guy was an All Star a few seasons ago. Well how about Nava? He was a late bloomer so we should have expected him to fall off the cliff. But he put up a 101 OPS+ last season while playing both outfield corners and first base. The difficult part is that the logic is not difficult to follow. If the Red Sox had signed Edinson Volquez to a two year, $20 million and he’d blown up we could easily say “I told ya so!” and be right, but here that’s not the case. That isn’t to say the team’s move can’t be questioned. Clearly they should be, if for no other reason than the results have been putrid. Just that many of the individual moves that haven’t worked out made sense at the time.

Ultimately the team’s depth has failed it as much as their starters, but we’re not at the stage in the evolution of baseball where building the best bench is a cogent strategy for winning. The best benches don’t win. The best starters do. And now we get De Aza. Maybe he’s lightning in a bottle the way that Craig and Nava weren’t, but likely he’s not. Likely he’s just Alejandro De Aza, slightly supped up Carlos Peguero, and if I had to guess, he’ll end up on the scrap heap before the season is out. It’s such a waste of Joe Gunkel, and all because of the failure of depth.

Photo by Jeff Curry/USA Today Sports Images

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