I Don’t Know: Sussing Out the Red Sox Third Base Options

The Red Sox have a $197 million payroll. The plan at third base going into the season was Pablo Sandoval, backed up by Brock Holt, Marco Hernandez, and Rule 5 pick Josh Rutledge. However, Sandoval has washed up on the beach and begun to rot – he is back on the disabled list for the second time this year, and is likely to be released if he continues to stink both offensively and defensively on a rehab assignment in Pawtucket. Meanwhile Holt has been out of action since April 21 with a severe case of vertigo. Hernandez is out with a shoulder injury and is not projected to return any time soon. Rutledge had been forced into action and been supported by the atrocious hitting Deven Marrero. On Friday, Rutledge joined the ranks of the rostered wounded, and the Red Sox added Tzu-Wei Lin to the fray.

Going forward, someone has to play third base for the Red Sox. While a trade or free agent signing is a possibility, the in-house candidates are going to get an audition (most likely) until the trade deadline.

Let’s look at each candidate:

Rutledge: He has not set the world on fire at the plate, with a .224/.297/.262 line in 107 at-bats. His defense is either passable or below average, depending on who you ask. And he has made 16 appearances filling in at second base because of the various knocks suffered by Dustin Pedroia. His major and minor league track record show a player suited to being a bench/utility player whose weaknesses are accentuated when he has to play everyday. Is Rutledge replacement level or below? The early returns in 2017 suggest the latter. To add injury to insult, Rutledge was just placed on the DL with a concussion he has been suffering through for a month.

Marrero: A former first round pick, this minor league shortstop can definitely provide above average defense at the hot corner. However, he is embarrassingly awful at the plate. Brandon Magee provided this factoid about Marrero’s offensive lack of offense:

He once had four consecutive games where he had multiple hits in each game. That was in 2013. In A-ball.

Marrero is a classic ‘good-field, no-hit’ player; his one potentially useful skill – bunting/sacrificing – is wasted on a club that uses the bunt less frequently than any other team in baseball (and has for years). Marrero is a useful defensive replacement, at best, and will be a huge liability going forward if he is sent to the plate too often. Marrero is currently “hitting” .100/.125/.167 while whiffing nearly every other at bat in June.

Ryan Court: Every AAA roster has a couple guys like Court: late 20s, good fundamentals, hard working, versatile, and lacking the demonstrated, consistent skills to break through to the big leagues. Court is having a good year at the plate for Pawtucket, hitting .262/.357/.422 in 206 at-bats. He is a competent defender and while he has played just two game at third base this season, he did man the hot corner 62 times last season in Portland and Pawtucket.

Court could be the next-man-up, most likely when Marrero fails to hit water while falling out of a boat. Maybe he becomes one of those out-of-nowhere minor league veterans who inexplicably gets hot for two weeks or a month in his first go-round in the big leagues. More likely, he out-hits Rutledge a little, but not enough for a pennant contender.

Jantzen Witte: I gotta be honest – I had no idea who this guy is. Thankfully, Brandon Magee answers my emails:

Witte is a 27-year-old corner infielder who has expanded his repertoire to include second base this season. Primarily the third baseman for the PawSox in 2016 (94 games), Witte showed flashes of offensive competence in the low minors, but can’t break .700 (OPS) in AAA.

He’s hitting .228/.348/.317 in 200 plate appearances, which sadly projects as better than Deven Marrero.

Heiker Meneses: Another career minor leaguer, this 25-year-old journeyman is now in his second stint with the Sox after beginning his career with them in 2008. He’s a competent defensive player at multiple positions, with 153 career games at third base. Again, I knew basically nothing about him, so I asked Magee:  

“[He] hits about as well as Marrero.”

Oh. Well, this is not going well.

Matt Dominguez: Another of those AAA depth guys, Dominguez is hitting .213/.243/.324 this season for Pawtucket. Dominguez has 1,272 major league at bats over four seasons, with all but six games played at the hot corner. In 2013 he put up a .241/.286/.403 season for the Astros and last year hit .269/.315/.421 for AAA Buffalo. But he has virtually no chance of making it back to the big leagues this year, thanks to his performance at the plate.

That he must be mentioned as a remote possibility should underscore just how bad Boston’s third base situation really is.

Mike Olt: Another former major leaguer, this 29-year-old had his career derailed by a string of injuries that had him out of baseball in 2016. He is hitting .220/.330/.407 at AA Portland, and he hasn’t played much at third base because of the next guy on this list. However, he does have years of minor league experience and 135 major league appearances in the past – and he’s playing better than Dominguez.

Rafael Devers: Now we’re talking: This 20-year-old power hitter is a legitimate candidate to be the Red Sox Opening Day third baseman in 2018. He had an excellent first half of the season in AA Portland, likely making the Eastern League All-Star team with a .291/.354/.550 line, 14 homers, and 17 doubles. He looks set for a promotion to AAA Pawtucket very soon.

However, all indications from General Manager Dave Dombrowski are that Devers is not among the in-house candidates for 2017. Back in May, he said:

“Devers has done great,” Dombrowski said. “He’s in Double A at 20 years old right now. We’re happy where he is right now. We like him a lot. He’s having a great season, but we’re not ready to jump outside the organization.”

It seems the Red Sox believe Devers needs additional time to ripen in the minors. The development ladder of the minor leagues exists to prepare players for the big leagues – success in AA does not automatically translate to the bigs. And while some players, like Andrew Benintendi, can make the jump, others cannot. The team does not seem anxious to push Devers, and is wary of taking a risk that could set back his timetable or hurt his confidence with a promotion to Boston right now.

Michael Chavis: Another 20-year-old, Chavis was promoted to AA Portland from High-A Salem on June 22nd. The former first round pick has seemingly recovered fully from offseason surgery and has been bashing the ball over the fences all season, earning an All-Star berth with a .318/.388/.641 line, 17 homers, and 17 doubles before his promotion. He has continued to bash in his first three games in Portland, with a pair of singles, a double, and two roundtrippers.

However, what was just said about Devers goes double for Chavis, who has had less game time because of injury. The pressure put on any third baseman in Boston would be astronomical compared to Salem and Portland. A power-hitting infielder is a precious commodity and the team has to balance the needs of today with the development priorities of tomorrow, and in this case, Chavis is less likely to be in Boston this year than Devers is.

Tzu-Wei Lin: A much more likely candidate than either Devers or Chavis, the 23-year-old Lin is a slick fielding shortstop who had an excellent first half in AA Portland with his .302/.379/.491 performance in 159 at-bats. Lin has worked his way up the minor league ladder since debuting as an international free agent in 2012. Though 2017 was his third stint in Portland, the SS has shown real progress this year, both at the plate and in the field.

There would be no concerns about stalling Lin’s development with a promotion: He is at the age where he can either handle a jump in competition and can hold down a major league role or he embarks on the career minor leaguer path like Court, Dominguez, and Olt.

With Rutledge being placed on the DL, Lin was brought up for his first cup of coffee, replacing Rutledge as the jack-of-all-infield trademan. Will he get a chance to usurp the third base position from Marrero?

Brock Holt: The man with the greatest aura in the big leagues might never play in the majors again: Vertigo is a debilitating condition and Holt’s long-term health obviously must be the priority. However, it is possible that the symptoms clear and Holt returns to make every Red Sox fans’ aura go gold. This is by far the best possible in-house solution: Holt, when healthy, is a capable defender who provides solid production at the plate.

But it is more likely that Holt’s struggles with vertigo have just begun and he will be unable to return to the field this year, or any year. That would be the darkest possible outcome and would make Sox fans’ aura pinstriped.

The options are not good: with Rutledge out of action, it appears Marrero will give the Red Sox superior defense and a nightly 0-for-3 which will make fans want to curl up in the fetal position and cry.

The minor league options are meager. Meneses is a poor hitter with an unimpressive minor league track record. Dominguez would need to go on an epic hot streak to raise his numbers to barely acceptable. Witte, like Meneses, has no major league experience and nothing in his career or this season suggests he could do any better. Olt is in AA, missed last year, and hasn’t torn the cover off the ball at the plate.

While Devers and Chavis provide hope for the future, both need to stay on the farm this year to maximize their development. Despite the dire situation in Boston, there are numerous examples of prospects who were rushed to the big leagues when they weren’t quite ready. Devers and Chavis have tremendous potential, but if the risk is setting their development back, the team is quite right to be patient and wait. Third base in Boston isn’t exactly a pressure-free environment, especially in the midst of a pennant race.

This leaves two options: Court and Lin.

With the Red Sox decision on Friday, they believe the best in-house option is Lin. The shortstop can provide Marrero’s defense and might be able to hit his way out of a wet paper bag. However, if he fails to immediately contribute, maybe the best hope is that Court captures lightning in a bottle for a few weeks – but more likely both prove to be more below-average options.

Trade, I guess? Or will the recent signing of Jhonny Peralta be the salve that heals the third base wounds?


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Featured image courtesy of Ron Schwane/AP Photo.

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