The Red Sox don’t have an embarrassment of riches. There are questions throughout the lineup that have been discussed by both the writers in Fort Myers and those of us in our home offices since the offseason. Many of those questions revolve around the lineup. Whether it’s the classic Hanley Ramirez/Pablo Sandoval banter, the suspect bats of Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley Jr. or the decline of Dustin Pedroia, the wrong answers to those questions could mean trouble for the 2016 club.
Depth isn’t the sexiest topic in baseball, but it’s important. Take the 2015 Royals, for example. The addition of Ben Zobrist as a utility man with a .293 TAv and 1.3 WARP in Kansas City aided the team’s run to a World Series. Having plus players like Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando also proved key for the Royals during the season.
Depth is especially valuable for a team with as much uncertainty as the Red Sox.
Depth is especially valuable for a team with as much uncertainty as the Red Sox. Last year’s team had few answers off the bench to the many flaws among positional players. Most nights it was Brock Holt or bust. The productivity of this year’s lineup remains unclear, but the Red Sox appear deeper and more versatile off the bench, as Alex Skillin highlighted back in December. Holt, Travis Shaw and Chris Young can all play multiple positions, and are proven hitters to some degree. Holt was an All-Star last season and is still Mr. Everything in the field; Young, who posted a .339 TAv against lefties last season, will make a solid platoon player and could see his role increase if Castillo or Bradley falters at the plate; and Shaw’s stock has only risen with an impressive spring training in which he’s hit .419/.455/.677 and has shown he can effectively play first, third or even left field. Ryan Hanigan is the steady backup catcher the Red Sox need until Christian Vazquez is ready.
It looks like a good bench. But how good it is seems unclear, especially compared to the rest of the AL East. Have the Red Sox set themselves apart from the rest of the division? Have they fit in with the rest of the pack? Or something still missing?
The best way to determine this, of course, is by looking at the rest of the division. But before we do that, let’s look at what PECOTA projects for the Red Sox’s reserves this season.
Brock Holt: .252 TAv; .279/.332/.379; 1.0 WARP
Chris Young: .258 TAv; .237/.315/.412; 0.9 WARP
Travis Shaw: .257 TAv; .246/.318/.417; 0.2 WARP
Ryan Hanigan: .246 TAv; .250/.338/.333; 0.3 WARP
PECOTA doesn’t think highly of this group. Holt’s and Hanigan’s projections are in line with their career averages, which is a good thing. However, it’s fair to say that Shaw or Young simply meeting those projections would be a bit of a disappointment. Ben Carsley wrote in February that Shaw’s 2015 production seems unsustainable. And spring training stats are all but meaningless. However, neither can be ignored, and Shaw is young and unproven enough that we can still hope for a little more than a 0.2 WARP (sorry, I’m greedy). PECOTA also doesn’t take into account his versatility. Young’s projections seem reasonable as well. But the fact that he’s starting the season as a platoon player with strong career numbers against lefties – and he adds some power with a career .194 ISO – increases his value as a reserve.
Now let’s look at the division:
Toronto will be without second baseman Devon Travis until at least May after he underwent offseason shoulder surgery, so its current projected bench consists of infielders Justin Smoak and Darwin Barney, and outfielders Dalton Pompey, Ezekiel Carrera and Junior Lake. Smoak is a first baseman who had 328 plate appearances last season, finishing with a .267 TAv and 0.6 WARP. This season he’s projected to post a .263 TAv – better than that of any Red Sox bench player – but also a flat 0.0 WARP in part because he’s limited to first base. Barney brings a little more versatility to the infield, but he’s also of the zero WARP category and a projected .232 TAv. Nothing special.
Pompey and Carrera could both be used in platoon roles against lefties, but are useful for little more than that. Meanwhile, Lake had just 84 plate appearances last season. Pompey had a .289 TAv against lefties in 2015, and is projected to post a .252 TAv overall and 0.6 WARP this season. He’s only 23 years old and can play throughout the outfield. Carrera had a .280 TAv against lefties last season, but his .239 TAv and 0.3 WARP are nothing to get excited about. Lake has posted a negative WARP in each of the last two seasons. Josh Thole, meanwhile, is projected to see just 90 plate appearances behind catcher Russell Martin, and post a .236 TAv and 0.2 WARP.
The Yankees’ depth took a hit with Greg Bird out for the season, but they have enough infielders to get by. Rob Refsnyder is the most notable of the bunch. The nearly 25-year-old second baseman, who can also play third, moved through the Yankees’ farm system fairly quickly after joining the organization in 2012, and hit well in just 47 plate appearances last season, slashing .302/.348/.512. His major-league sample size is small, but PECOTA projects a .273 TAv and 0.8 WARP – solid potential for a young reserve player.
First/second baseman and outfielder Dustin Ackley has a career .260 TAv in five major-league seasons, which is right in line with his projected .261 mark for 2016. Ronald Torreyes, meanwhile, is an unproven backup shortstop with eight games of big-league experience, but he’s the next-best infielder on the list. He’ll likely start the season in the minors.
The Yankees traded for Aaron Hicks to be their fourth outfielder this season. Last season, it was Young. Hicks is a slight offensive downgrade and defensive upgrade who’ll occupy a similar role. He posted a .299 TAv against lefties last season, and this year is projected to finish with a .254 TAv overall, which would be a career-best in three seasons, and a 0.2 WARP. Hicks doesn’t bring the power Young did for the Yankees, either, sporting a .142 ISO in 2015 compared to Young’s .201 mark.
New York has a backup catcher with two major-league games under his belt in 23-year-old Gary Sanchez. Sanchez is projected to post a .254 TAv in 67 plate appearances this season. His downfall for now is his lack of experience should Brian McCann miss significant time at any point.
Tampa Bay has two of the more intriguing bench players in the division in Steve Pearce and Desmond Jennings. Pearce had a career year with the Orioles at 31 years old in 2014, finishing with a .346 TAv, .293/.373/.556 slash line and 21 home runs. Last season was the opposite. He still had some pop with 15 homers, but a .244 TAv was a major regression. The Rays certainly bought low when acquiring Pearce in the offseason. This season PECOTA projects a .275 TAv and 0.6 WARP for the first baseman, which is a solid balance between his 2014 and 2015 numbers.
Jennings is also an interesting case thanks to an up-and-down career thus far. He missed most of last season with a left knee injury, but he’s had his share of strong seasons. His .263 TAv and 1.1 WARP projection is reasonable, and still better than anything PECOTA gives the Red Sox’s bench. Brandon Guyer was also given good marks by PECOTA with a projected .271 TAv. Tim Beckham and Nick Franklin have about two full seasons of major-league experience between the two of them, but they will at least add some infield depth.
The Rays have had battle between Rene Rivera and Curtis Casali. Casali was the better of the two catchers in 2015, posting a 1.3 WARP compared to Rivera’s -1.0 mark. ESPN has Casali ahead of Rivera on its projected depth chart, so let’s assume that’s the case. PECOTA sees a .224 TAv and 0.3 WARP for the 32-year-old Rivera this season.
Most of Baltimore’s depth will come in the form of Ryan Flaherty who can and will play just about any position on the field, similar to what Holt has done in Boston the last two years. Flaherty, however, doesn’t provide much offense. He slashed .202/.281/.356 in 301 plate appearances last season, and is projected by PECOTA to finish 2016 with a .237 TAv. Give me Holt any day.
The Orioles’ starting left field spot is still a toss up between Nolan Reimold and Hyun-Soo Kim. Either way, Baltimore should have a good fourth outfielder off the bench. Reimold would be best served in a platoon role with a career .281 TAv against lefties. Kim, who appears to be the front-runner for the starting job, is projected to post a .260 TAv and 1.3 WARP this season. Other than that the Orioles have Jimmy Paredes, a third baseman/DH with a career -0.5 WARP, and the predictably average Caleb Joseph behind Matt Wieters at catcher. It may be another tough year in Baltimore, and the bench is a reflection of that.
So what does this all mean? Let’s start with value. The Red Sox’s bench has a combined projected WARP of 2.4. That’s good for second in the division behind the Rays, for who PECOTA projects a combined WARP of 3.3 off the bench for the five players discussed. Pearce and Jennings put past success on Tampa Bay’s side, but both players have shown they can have not only really good years, but really bad ones. PECOTA projects both players to level out from their inconsistent ways, which would still separate the Rays from the rest of the AL East.
What sets the Red Sox’s bench apart is its versatility and power potential. Holt’s success is sometimes hard to fathom, but it’s legitimate. He’s still valuable in his super utility role, especially with Sandoval’s competency and Pedroia’s health usually in question. He’s a plus player and has a career 24.2 percent LD%. He brings it all. Shaw and Young are not only versatile, but both add that necessary element of power, making them useful in late-game situations. Shaw had a .217 ISO last season with a 42.7 percent FB%. At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, it’s safe to believe his power is real. Young hits fly balls at a 48.4 percent career rate. His power, along with his other aforementioned qualities, expands his role beyond platooning. The only AL East bench that can match that quality is the Rays, but consistency is a concern for them in that category.
What sets the Red Sox’s bench apart is its versatility and power potential.
Holt, Shaw, Young and Hanigan look like the role players the Red Sox need. Those players help their bench stand out among what could be a crowded AL East this season. The Rays, Yankees and Blue Jays may have more exciting individual players at the top off their bench, but the Sox have more overall talent, versatility and potential from top to bottom. These are role players, and the Red Sox have players who can fill their roles perfectly – assuming they at least meet expectations – even if parts of their lineup are still in question.
Those questions made depth necessary. The Red Sox not only have that depth, but enough ability to make up one of the best benches in the division, if not in the AL.
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