It’s obligatory, even cliche, but somehow still worth repeating: the Red Sox will never be able to replace David Ortiz. But with Ortiz’s career now in the past tense and the 2017 season tumbling towards us at the speed of one three-hundred-and-sixty-fifth of a year per day, the Red Sox need to act and fill the hole Ortiz has left behind as best they can. There are many articles that have been written about this topic, and this is another one. But before you click to an article on the return of the Gilmore Girls or dissecting the latest tweet from Donald Trump, perhaps pause a moment because there is something new here to explore.
There are, as you might expect, many different ideas as to how the Red Sox might fill their DH spot. The most prominent of these has been to sign Edwin Encarnacion. Ortiz himself even endorsed this idea. Encarnacion is a fantastic hitter, but the combination of his age and contractual demands (money plus years) have made him a seemingly unlikely option. Similarly the Red Sox seem to have no interest (thank Jehovah) in paying dollars, years, and a first round draft pick for the right to put Jose Bautista in their lineup. There are other candidates as well, but all have one thing in common: they cost too much in some way. The Red Sox are reportedly interested in Carlos Beltran, another aged star, but so are the Yankees, Rangers, and a host of other teams, so much so that it seems likely Beltran could finagle a multi-year deal, effectively doubling the cost of writing his name on the lineup card. Were he a few years younger that’d might even be fine, but Beltran is baseball’s equivalent of Santa Claus: he’s jolly and he’ll bring presents, but he’s ridiculously old.
So here’s the new idea, the one from two paragraphs ago. On Monday the Milwaukee Brewers non-tendered Chris Carter, meaning they have 10 days to trade him or he’s a free agent. If he reaches free agency, the Red Sox should sign him. That’s it. That’s the idea. It gets more interesting when you get into why though, so here’s why. Carter will be 30 next season and was set to earn $8.1 million in 2017, but now he won’t. Cutting him came as somewhat of a surprise, as Carter hit 41 homers in 2016. That’s tied for sixth in all of baseball with Nolan Arenado. Ahead of them are Mark Trumbo, Nelson Cruz, Encarnacion, Brian Dozier, and Khris (not Chris) Davis. That’s it. Behind him is every other player in baseball.
Beltran is baseball’s equivalent of Santa Claus: he’s jolly and he’ll bring presents, but he’s ridiculously old.
You wouldn’t think that guy would be cut loose, but Carter has his warts. There are a few reasons the Brewers decided he’s not worth their $8 million. One is they just signed Eric Thames, but if they thought Carter had value they wouldn’t DFA him, they’d trade him. So start by looking up Carter at Baseball Prospectus and you’ll see last season he was worth 0.8 WARP. That’s less than a single win above replacement. He got 644 plate appearances, hit 41 homers, and somehow would up worth less than a win. That must mean he’s pretty bad at everything else. And… sort of.
Carter is pretty bad defensively. The Brewers played him mostly at first base, but being in the National League they didn’t have the luxury of putting him at DH. Our defensive stat, FRAA, hated Carter’s defense last season, rating him at -12.1. This lines up pretty well with other advanced defensive metrics, like those at FanGraphs and Baseball Reference. And it’s not like this was a one season thing either. His defense is bad. So that’s one thing.
Carter struck out 206 times last season, a number which led all of baseball. In fact, in all his seven seasons in the big leagues, Carter has three numbers in black ink on his baseball reference page (i.e. thrice he’s led baseball in something). Last season he played 160 games, the most in baseball (that’s good!), and twice he’s led baseball in strikeouts including last season. This isn’t a new thing either. Carter’s strikeout percentage has been in the 30s every year since he became a regular player except for once, when it was in the 40s. So Carter strikes out a lot. This also serves to hold down his batting average. We are in 2016 so this maybe doesn’t look as damning as it might were this 1986 or 1976, but even so a .220 batting average isn’t exactly a thing of beauty and most teams may not want to sign a guy who isn’t likely to hit more than .230 and may even hit around .200.
He’s a bad base runner. Our Baserunning Runs (BRR) thinks he’s a lousy baserunner, and so do other metrics. Last year wasn’t an outlier either. He’s been a negative baserunner in every season in his career by BRR. Once a player has been a bad baserunner that often, he’s very unlikely to improve vastly once he reaches age-30, which Carter has. Therefore he is a bad baserunner.
So, let’s pause and recap. Chris Carter has power, but is now entering his 30s, strikes out way too much, has a horrible batting average, is awful on defense, and can’t run the bases. Well I can hear you saying, “You’re right, Matt. I don’t know what the Red Sox are waiting for. Sign this guy right now.” And yes, Mrs. and Mr. Sarcasm, there are some warts here. But if there weren’t the Brewers would’ve paid him his arbitration money and you wouldn’t be reading this article because I wouldn’t have written it. Now that I’ve listed his warts, let me tell you why they shouldn’t matter to the Red Sox.
The Red Sox are looking for a DH and DHs don’t play defense, so you can throw out Carter’s defensive numbers because he won’t be needing them. In effect, Carter’s bad defense makes him ideal as a DH because those numbers only serve to hold down his value and thus his market. It’s good Carter isn’t a good defensive player!
Carter does strike out a ton and his batting average isn’t going to win any beauty contests. Neither is ideal, but what matters isn’t the strikeouts alone or even the Ks and the low average. What matters is the entirety of his offensive output. Last year Carter’s offensive output was good. He was the fourth-most valuable hitter on the Brewers by VORP. His offense last season was roughly equivalent to Dustin Pedroia or Sandy Leon. He was a good, not great, hitter. What’s more, on the Red Sox, a team with lots of runners on base, home runs (worth multiple runs) and strikeouts (i.e. not double plays) would play just fine.
I fear I’m belaboring the point here, so let’s cut to it. Carter’s bat has value, and with their DH position wide open, the Red Sox are in a unique position to extract it. But what Carter also brings to the proverbial table is flexibility. The Red Sox don’t want to commit $100 million and five years to Encarnacion, they don’t want to sacrifice a draft pick to sign him or Bautista, and they don’t want to give a 40-year-old Beltran a multi-year contract. They have some money to spend but they want to reserve most of it for their young stars, and maybe for a splash on the 2018 free agent market. The Red Sox want a good hitter at DH, but most of all what the Red Sox want from their DH in 2017 is value. Carter offers value. He won’t cost much money, likely not more than the Brewers would have paid him in arbitration or they would have traded him. He won’t command a multi-year deal like the bigger names on the free agent market. He won’t cost them a draft pick, and acquiring him won’t require them to deal anything substantial from their dwindling reserves of minor league talent.
Chris Carter’s 41 home runs look impressive, but look closer and he starts to look like an empty suit. And maybe for most teams he is exactly that. But the Red Sox have different needs than most teams, and for them Chris Carter’s skills play up and his deficiencies fade to the back. He’s a chance to avoid the free agent market, a chance to keep their draft pick, a chance to keep their prospects or at least use them elsewhere, a chance to do all those things and still get some decent production from the DH spot in the lineup. He can help them win in 2017 without sacrificing value in later seasons. Carter isn’t the best player available, but considering the whole picture, for the Red Sox he might be the best fit.
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