Red Sox Playing Time Battles: Hitters

We’ve started our annual Depth Chart Discussions, re-branded as Playing Time Battles for 2016. You can catch up on every team we’ve covered in the Playing Time Battles Summary post or following along using the Depth Chart Discussions tag.

A few bad contracts, delayed success for a sputtering prospect, and another Dustin Pedroia injury conspired together to sink the offense of the Boston Red Sox in 2015, leading to a disappointing 78-84 record. The Sox aren’t used to being a pedestrian offense, and that’s decidedly what they were a year ago, on an adjusted basis, ranking 13th in baseball with a weighted runs created-plus of 98 despite ranking fourth in total runs scored.

The Sox still did well getting on base despite an average walk rate, thanks in part to a .305 team batting average on balls in play and one of the league’s lowest strikeout rates. That represented a shift from the past two seasons, when they were far more true outcome-heavy, to strong results in 2013 but mediocre ones in 2014. A moderate lack of power outside of David Ortiz was somewhat unexpected, and relying on a 40-year-old in his victory lap season, however good that 40-year-old is, is a risky proposition.

With so much long-term money committed to Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, and Rusney Castillo, the Sox opted not to make an offseason splash on the lineup side. That doesn’t mean this offense won’t be better, though. Progression from several intriguing young players, the chance for veteran bounce-backs, and a better optimization of playing time will work together to make the Sox one of the most dangerous offenses in baseball once again.

The Infield Corners

Ramirez and Sandoval, two remarkably disappointing players from 2015, enter the season as Boston’s respective first and third basemen. In the case of Ramirez, he only stands to be 1B-OF eligible, making the bar his offense needs to clear a little higher (you’ll play him as an outfielder, even once he gains the eligibility at first). Sandoval at least maintains his spot at the hot corner, but that was one of fantasy baseball’s most reliable spots a season ago, save for Panda. The Sox are paying each too much to shift them to bench roles, but there’s reason to believe they’ll at least see less than a full-time workload.

Owners investing in Ramirez should hope otherwise, as there’s a bit of rebound potential coming off of a career-worst season. ZiPS and Steamer both like him to return to being roughly 20 percent above average with the stick, and he’ll push 20 home runs if he’s playing nearly every day (and maybe even if he’s not). The lineup should be strong enough that he’ll see ample RBI opportunities hitting fifth or sixth, and if he starts walking again, he might reach double-digit stolen bases. A .275-20-65-65-10 season is hardly something to celebrate, but it keeps Ramirez around the 35-mark for outfielders.

Sandoval, meanwhile, is more of a corner-infield play than a startable third baseman in most formats, rounding out the top-20 thanks to floor, not ceiling. He’s probably not hitting 20 home runs again, his high-BABIP days are mostly behind him, and his walk rate has reached a two-year nadir. He might be a league-average bat, taking an optimistic view, but that doesn’t really move the needle at such a deep position.

If either stumble mightily, get injured, or see their playing time scaled back, there are a number of interesting names that could factor in. One is Travis Shaw, a 25-year-old first baseman who can (try to) play some third and is also going to try his hand in left field during spring training. Shaw isn’t an elite prospect, by any means, but he’s got a little bit of pop in his bat and posted strong walk rates until he reached Triple-A in 2014.

He’s probably first in line to take on playing time from either, but Allen Craig looms, too. Craig hasn’t been good, or anywhere close to it, since 2013 and only saw very occasional duty at third in St. Louis. Sure, he can man first and ostensibly the outfield, but he’s 31 years old who had some of the softest contact in baseball a season ago. The Red Sox probably don’t care about burying his $9-million salary in the minors, either, which might make 25-year-old Deven Marrero a more likely option. Marrero saw 56 plate appearances last year despite grading out as a below-average bat in Triple-A, but he’d be a cheap source of steals if he saw playing time.

If the Sox deem Josh Rutledge capable of playing third – an iffy proposition – he might be able to fight for a bench spot. A former third-round picked once looked at as a power-speed sleeper in the middle infield, Rutledge has never really panned out and saw just 85 major-league plate appearances last year. Chris Dominguez lurks somewhere in the minors, as well. There are a lot of uninspiring corner-infield options in the organization.

Left Field, 4th(/5th) OF

Two outfield positions seem pretty set with Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts, and salaries would dictate that Rusney Castillo has a serious inside track on the left field job. And he does, even coming off a 72 wRC+, a .288 OBP, and what was just an “OK” 40-game stint in Triple-A. The Red Sox need him to return something on their $72.5-million investment, but fantasy owners don’t need to get too hot about him. Even with a full workload, he only projects as something like a .265-12-60-50-15 guy, and in the outfield, that’s hardly remarkable. Castillo could get a full-time commitment and still fall outside the top-50 outfielders.

Realistically, Chris Young will man the fourth outfield spot and start against left-handed pitchers, and that could eat into some of Castillo’s playing time. Bradley will lose some, too, as the outfield’s only lefty, and there’s good reason why – Young destroyed southpaws to the tune of a 162 wRC+ last year. The issue is that he struggles against righties, and the short side of a platoon doesn’t render someone draftable, even with serious pop and a bit of speed.

David Murphy, Brennan Boesch, and Bryce Brentz make up the likely minor-league depth. Brentz is the most intriguing name as a former first-round pick plagued by injuries seemingly forever. He has a great arm and some power from the right side – especially against lefties – but doesn’t possess speed or a great batting-average profile. Murphy and Boesch are both lefties, which could make them intriguing short-term call-ups if a regular went down, as they could slide into the larger share of a platoon. Murphy’s remained a decent bat into his mid-thirties, showing double-digit pop without completely killing a batting average. Boesch has a similar book on him but with worse defense and contact skills.

A note on DH

Ortiz isn’t going to play a full slate, in all likelihood. 140 games seems a reasonable bet. Whichever outfielder and corner infielder crack the roster stand to see a few spot-starts at DH (or additional starts at their position to get someone else rest as the DH). Right now, that looks like Young and either Craig or Shaw.

Catcher

Is Blake Swihart ready for a full workload behind the plate? The 23-year-old held his own at the dish with a .274/.319/.392 line in 309 plate appearances as a rookie last season, encouraging enough for a freshman backstop and No. 1 prospect. He came on strong later in the year and will be the opening-day starter, and there’s enough to like that he’d be a top-15 catcher if there were the certainty of, say, 120 games. Good as he may eventually be, that’s probably not the case, at least not yet.

That’s because 25-year-old pitch-framer extraordinaire Christian Vasquez is expected to be healthy for the start of the season. Vasquez isn’t nearly as exciting an offensive option but is more ready to manage a staff, and there’s a little bit of power in his profile. He stole seven bases in 96 games at Double-A in 2013, too, but it’s tough to bet on that carrying over. The role uncertainty here doesn’t change much for Vasquez’ fantasy outlook but makes Swihart risky as a C1.

If Vasquez needs some time in the minors to get up to speed, another great pitch-framer in Ryan Hangian will take on the backup job, likely taking some starts against lefties. Sandy Leon exists for off-radar organizational depth.

The Beast Incarnate

We’ve gone this far without mentioning The Conqueror, Brock Holt. His name is probably all that was necessary for a “depth chart discussion” on the Red Sox, as he could legitimately fill in as the backup at almost every position on the diamond. So why bury the lede? Drama, dude.

Holt is going to be a major factor for the Sox, likely seeing starts at every spot but catcher – he played at least 49 innings at six different positions last year and has shown he can play the seventh, center field, if needed. He’s eligible at every infield position and the outfield in Yahoo leagues (2B/3B/OF on CBS), and while utility players are somewhat difficult to value for fantasy purposes, that versatility is attractive. It’s worth noting, though, that Rotographs still ranked him outside of the top-40 at each infield spot and outside of the top-100 in the outfield.

That’s because Holt’s fantasy production is uninspiring, with a decent batting average, a little bit of speed, and some juice in the runs category. Even if he were to play a full slate – manager John Farrell estimates only 350-400 PAs – he’s probably not offering much more than .280-5-70-50-15. That’s not nothing, but Holt might be the league’s foremost example of a player who’s more valuable in real life than in fantasy. He’s a potentially useful depth piece in deeper leagues, but his biggest impact may be limiting Boston’s reliance on the plethora of unsightly options outlined throughout this piece.



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Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

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whiptydojoe
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whiptydojoe

Holt is the guy that goes undrafted on draft day, but he’s a solid piece on every roster by late-April.