On Tuesday, the Red Sox selected first base prospect Sam Travis from Pawtucket. After observing from the bench that night, he played in his first game Wednesday and went 2-for-4. His first base hit in the majors was an infield single off of the glove of the Rangers pitcher. Besides giving Mitch Moreland some much needed time off, what does Sam bring to Boston, and how will he be utilized by the Red Sox?
Travis was drafted in the second round of the 2014 First Year Player Draft out of the University of Indiana – where he teamed with Kyle Schwarber to form an offensive duo that dominated play in the Big 10 and saw Indiana compete in the 2013 College World Series and reach the CWS Regionals in 2014. In his three seasons for the Hoosiers, Travis was a steady performer with the bat, putting up an OPS of .906 in his freshman year, .964 as a sophomore, and finishing his college career with a .991. His .347/.415/.576 line in his final season included 85 hits – with 16 doubles, two triples, and a dozen homers – and 25 walks in 59 games. In his three-season career at Indiana, Travis struck out exactly one more time than he walked.
The former Hoosier was promptly signed by the Red Sox and assigned to the Lowell Spinners, where he quickly took to wooden bats, hitting .333/.364/.448 with ten extra-base hits in 40 games, earning a quick bump to Greenville for the rest of 2014. With the Drive, Travis showed his power potential, striking 11 doubles (and three homers) in only 27 games while putting up a line of .290/.330/.495.
In Sam’s first full season of professional baseball, the Red Sox started him off with their High-A affiliate in Salem, Virginia. Sam spent the first half of the season in the Carolina League, batting .313/.378/.467 with 24 extra-base hits. Promoted to AA Portland for the second half of the season, Travis demonstrated his intent to fly through the system with a .300/.384/.436 line and 23 extra-base drives. Over his entire 131 game 2015 season, he hit .307/.381/.452 with 32 doubles and nine homers. The 6’0”, 205-pound first baseman also displayed a surprising element in his game – speed – as he compiled six triples and 19 stolen bases. The Red Sox were clearly excited about Travis’s potential, sending him to the Arizona Fall League, where he slammed 32 more hits – including ten more doubles – in 23 games, batting .344/.394/.505 for the Scottsdale Scorpions.
Last season, Travis climbed the penultimate rung of the professional ladder, landing in Pawtucket to start the season. In his first 46 games at the AAA level, Travis struggled against expectations, putting up a line of .272/.332/.434 with 47 hits – including ten doubles and six bombs – with 40 strikeouts and 15 walks. However, subtle adjustments were already being made. After striking out 23 times in only 21 games in April, he whiffed just 17 times in 25 games in May. Additionally, Travis had doubled his walks – going from five in April to ten in May.
On May 29, disaster struck. In the third inning of the PawSox game against the Indianapolis Indians, Travis tore his left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in a run down of Max Moroff of the Indians, who had been picked off of first. The injury would put Travis on the disabled list for the rest of the season. It would also change the Red Sox planning for the 2017 season. With Sam’s progress halted, the Red Sox signed free agent Mitch Moreland to a one-year deal for 2017.
Travis started this season in Pawtucket with a two-double, two-walk performance against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs on opening day, but his performance for the first half of April was largely forgettable, failing to get a hit in seven of his first ten games of the year. Travis was able to salvage April with hits in six of the final seven games, batting .233/.313/.333 with three doubles and a homer for the month. Much like his first April in Pawtucket, Travis struggled with the whiffs, striking out 18 times in 17 games.
May has been much better for the right-handed hitter, with a .333/.389/.561 line over 16 games with six doubles and three homers. Travis had multi-hit games in half of his May appearances, and struck out only six times during the month. But, it was his last week in Pawtucket that was truly special. In a five-game stretch (from May 15 through May 19), Travis smacked a dozen hits in 24 at-bats with two doubles, two homers, and three walks; scoring seven runs while knocking in eight. Unfortunately for the PawSox, his hot hitting did not help the win column, with the team losing all five games.
While Travis’s call-up is warranted, the move deserves some scrutiny based upon the Red Sox roster and needs. Clearly the Red Sox are a bit worried about wearing down Mitch Moreland, starting utility man Josh Rutledge at first base on Saturday in Oakland. Boston has the data to back up the supposition as well, with Moreland putting up a .756 OPS in August and a putrid .428 in September last year during his 147-game season. It is also true that in his career, he has done significantly better in the first half than in the second half.
But, Mitch Moreland has also been one of the bright spots for the Red Sox this season, leading the league with 16 doubles while batting .250/.352/.454. Moreland has always had more difficulties against left-handed pitching (with a significant decrease in slugging), but this season – while the power numbers remain low – he has reached base in 40% of his plate appearances against southpaws.
Manager John Farrell will need to figure out the best way to deploy the troika of first basemen/DHs he has in his current arsenal. Hanley Ramirez has only been able to start one game in the field this season and has to be assumed to be only a DH at this point. But, how often can you sit a man that drove out 30 homers last year? Moreland is a Gold Glove first baseman who has started the season very well with the bat, how often should he be on the bench? Sam Travis is likely the future for the Red Sox at first base, possibly starting next year, so shouldn’t he be playing more often than not? Yet, none of the players are true possibilities to move to another position either. Moreland has some outfield experience, but not since 2013. Travis has only played first base as a professional. And, it seems unlikely the Red Sox will place Ramirez on the field in any position until he can actually play at first base again.
This move leaves the Red Sox bench supremely thin. Josh Rutledge will continue to act as the utility infielder while Deven Marrero and his .447 OPS racks up starts at third base – as Red Sox nation prays for Pablo Sandoval, Brock Holt, or Rafael Devers to bring some offense back to the position. Chris Young will continue to give the outfielders a break, as Jackie Bradley Jr. attempts to end his season long slump (.200/.277/.360).
While Sam Travis’s promotion is duly earned and should be celebrated – especially in light of last season’s injury – the question remains, is this the right move for the Red Sox and for Travis? The Red Sox’ problems lie elsewhere on the roster and with Rutledge showing the ability to play first base, a part-time partner for Moreland seemed to be low on the list of priorities. Furthermore, the slew of potential moves the Red Sox will be making in the near term (in particular, the returns of David Price, Sandoval, and hopefully Holt) may end up making this transaction temporary in nature. Whether or not Farrell will be able to give Travis enough playing time during his stint in Boston is yet to be determined; if he is unable to, then there is little logic to the move.