When Boston won the 2013 World Series (spoiler alert!), many pundits anticipated the reality that the team would look very different in 2014. Expiring deals for key cogs like Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia made that the case. And yet, on the verge of the 2014 season, the Red Sox infield has many familiar faces.
Except, of course, at shortstop. The Red Sox don’t seem to have a concrete plan there, which is a strange position for a defending champ to be in during spring training. How this all shakes out will matter a great deal to fantasy owners, so it bears watching.
Drew started 122 games at short for Boston in 2013, accruing 3.4 wins above replacement in the process. His offense disappeared in the playoffs, but fans didn’t seem to mind since his defense was strong and David Ortiz did not make a single out the entire postseason (slight exaggeration employed).
The veteran shortstop was on a one-year deal, though, and he has yet to sign a contract for the 2014 season. In fact, he is reportedly holding his own spring training. So where does that leave the Red Sox?
With Xander Bogaerts, for now. Boston Globe reporter Nick Cafardo reported earlier this month that the top prospect will work out exclusively at shortstop. With Drew unsigned elsewhere speculation will remain as to whether the team actually plans to head into the season with the 21-year-old as its primary shortstop.
Bogaerts’ presence would provide a significant boost to an otherwise anemic class of American League shortstops. Questions about his ability to play passable major league defense there followed him throughout his meteoric rise through the minor leagues, but there were far fewer questions about his bat. He walks and can hit for power, and if he’s in the Red Sox lineup every day he should be able to post impressive counting stats.
He could stand to make more contact, and tighten up his plate discipline in general, as he whiffs more than average, and swings at pitches outside of the zone more than average. Since we’re talking about these figures from Bogaerts’ age 20 season, they aren’t huge concerns yet. He’s a potential fantasy monster at short, and a very capable contributor at third. Eligibility at both would only boost his value to fantasy owners in 2014. Of course, that depends mostly on what happens with Drew, and how capable Bogaerts’ early season defense is. (He did play eight games at short in 2013 so depending on league rules he may already qualify at both.)
The other player affected by Drew’s status is third baseman Will Middlebrooks. After busting onto the scene in 2012, hitting 15 home runs and driving in 54 runs in just 286 plate appearances. His .834 OPS made him a popular player heading into 2013, but things didn’t exactly go as planned.
Put less nicely: His 2013 was terrible.
The power was still there, to the tune of a .198 ISO, but he was down across the board otherwise. A drop in batting average on balls in play (from .335 to .263) helped submarine his batting average (which fell from .288 to .227). It might be fair to say Middlebrooks is better than he was last year, but not as good as he was in 2012.
Still, since he walks so rarely (as our own Jeff Zimmerman pointed out in November, he has more career home runs than unintentional walks) and strikes out so much (25.5% career) it would be foolish to ever expect a batting average approaching .300 again.
His power is fairly well established at this point, and if Bogaerts is given the reins at short, Middlebrooks will likely man the hot corner for Boston to start the year. If he’s cheap, the pop in his bat can justify the cash and his roster spot.
The Red Sox will also try Mike Carp at third base this spring. He’s a longshot to play there much, but it’s an admirable endeavor for the veteran. If he can play enough to gain fantasy eligibility, Carp has power (with a .177 career ISO that jumped to .227 last year) that can play in a short-term or injury replacement role for fantasy owners. He’s not a player to draft with third base in mind, but he’s a name worth squirreling away for later in the year.
Like Drew, Napoli signed a one-year deal last season, and he has signed back with the team for 2014 and 2015 as well. He will no longer have catcher eligibility moving forward, which drastically cuts down his value. As a catcher, he was a top tier option due to his power and on-base percentage. As a first baseman his .259/.360/.482 triple slash line will play much closer to average.
The hip injury that forced him to sign a one-year deal last offseason did not seem to affect him much, but that will remain a concern until he retires. Such is life as a 32-year-old former catcher.
Speaking of aging catchers. Things will change at home plate for the Red Sox. as Saltalamacchia took his talents to South Beach, and the team brought in veteran A.J. Pierzynski to replace him.
Pierzynski is 37 now, and given what we know about catcher aging curves, that’s probably not going to help him remain a productive hitter in 2014. Never one to walk much, Pierzynski dropped his walk rate to just 2.1 percent last year with the Rangers. He isn’t striking out at Dunnsian levels yet, but he is swinging at everything. Among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances last year, Pierzynski topped them all in swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. Yes, he even swung at more pitches outside the zone than Evan Gattis (49.6% to 45.2%). This is not a recipe for sustained success.
Feel free to also erase any thoughts of the Green Monster helping him much. Over the course of his 12-year career, roughly 90 percent of his home runs have gone to center or right field, so it seems Pierzynski’s success will hinge more on Pesky’s Pole than the wall in left.