FORT MYERS, Fla. — Jose Peraza was the mystery guest at Red Sox camp even before spring training was shut down.
The 25-year-old infielder was signed in December after being non-tendered by the Cincinnati Reds. That move was soon overshadowed by the departure of manager Alex Cora for his role in helping the 2017 Astros illegally steal signs, the Sox becoming embroiled in their own cheating scandal and the decision to trade Mookie Betts and David Price.
Peraza also kept a low profile when he arrived at camp, trying to fit in with his new team. He had never before played with any of his teammates and has yet to step foot in Fenway Park.
But he’s set to be the starting second baseman once baseball returns.
“He’s going to surprise some people,” Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers said. “Jose’s a good player. We think he’s going to hit.”
Peraza, who is from Venezuela, already has five seasons and 520 games of major league experience. The Red Sox see him as an above-average defender who is capable of more than he has shown offensively. Their hope is he can bring some steadiness to a position that has been in flux since Dustin Pedroia was last able to play regularly in 2017.
The Sox have since given 31 or more starts at second base to Brock Holt, Eduardo Nunez, Michael Chavis and Ian Kinsler over the last two seasons. Outside of Chavis, none are still with the organization.
The turnover shows up statistically. Since the start of the 2018 season, Sox second basemen have a .689 OPS (25th in the majors) and minus-23 defensive runs saved (28th in the majors).
Peraza has started games at shortstop, second base, left field, center field, third base and designated hitter during his career. He even pitched 1⅓ shutout innings last season in two appearances.
But he considers himself a second baseman.
“Second base is my most comfortable position,” Peraza said last week. “I played a lot of second base in the minors. I know I can help this team playing there.”
Peraza hit .288 with a .742 OPS in 157 games for the Reds in 2018. He had 49 extra-base hits, stole 23 bases, scored 85 runs and drove in 58 more. That’s the player the Sox hope they signed for one year and $3 million as opposed to the one who started slowly in 2019 and lost playing time.
Peraza hit .239 with a .631 OPS last season. His batting average on balls in play fell from .307 to .268, so bad luck was part of it. But he also showed a greater propensity to chase balls out of the strike zone.
Peraza never felt like he was able to get into a rhythm last season.
“I think it was playing time more than anything else,” he said with some assistance from Sox translator Bryan Loor-Almonte. “It wasn’t like 2018 when I had a chance to get out of slumps. That was the biggest difference.
“I tried to play the same way. But that’s part of baseball. It doesn’t always go your way.”
The Red Sox are already Peraza’s fourth organization, so he was not surprised when the Reds released him in early December rather than pay the $3.6 million he was projected to receive via arbitration.
“I almost expected it,” he said. “I just didn’t have a good season.”
Peraza said eight or nine teams inquired about him during free agency. He researched the Sox and felt it was the best fit given the void at second base.
He also wanted to play for a team with the historical impact of the Red Sox.
“They’re a team that has been successful. It’s a team anyone would want to play for. The opportunity was presented to me and I took it. It’s a great place to play baseball if you want to win a championship.
“I want to play at Fenway Park, too. I’m looking forward to that.”
Peraza was 7 of 30 (.233) with eight strikeouts and no walks when spring training was suspended. But his most recent at-bats showed improvement.
“He has a line-drive type of swing when he’s right,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “He runs well, too. He was late on the fastball when we first started playing but got his timing back.”
The defensive side was smooth, although Peraza did not get a chance to work with shortstop Xander Bogaerts on their double-play communication. Bogaerts was late getting started because of a sore left ankle.
“I don’t see a problem,” Peraza said. “It’ll be easy once we start playing.”
With the industry on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, Peraza returned to his home in Arizona. But his initial experience with the Sox was positive.
“The communication is good here. It’s a family environment,” he said. “I want to show people in Boston I can contribute to this team.”