The Red Sox signed free agent utility player Yairo Munoz to a minor league contract on March 24, two days before Major League Baseball froze all transactions because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
With all that was going on, the move went largely unnoticed. Its significance wasn’t revealed until Sunday, when the 25-year-old Munoz was one of 47 players the Sox invited to the resumption of spring training later this week.
Munoz is an interesting player in that he hit .273 with a .723 OPS for the St. Louis Cardinals the last two seasons and started games at shortstop, second base, third base, and all three outfield positions. But what’s even more interesting is how he came to be available.
Munoz strained his left hamstring in a spring training game for the Cardinals on Feb. 29 and was scheduled for an MRI to determine the severity of the injury. Munoz instead flew back to the Dominican Republic without permission.
The Cardinals tried to reach Munoz for several days, but he refused to take their phone calls and was released on March 7.
That is atypical. Usually a recalcitrant player would be placed on the restricted list.
“We just decided based on what we’re hearing from his agent, maybe cutting ties makes the most sense,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He just wasn’t happy here, and was frustrated with how he was used last year. Didn’t like the writing on the wall that he was seeing this year.”
Munoz — who came up through Oakland’s system and was traded to St. Louis in 2017 — had 329 plate appearances in 2018, hitting .276 with a .763 OPS in 108 games after making the club out of spring training. That dropped to 181 plate appearances last season, but he was nonetheless earning a major league salary. Munoz also had been playing well in 2020 camp, going 6 for 16 with two extra-base hits and four RBIs in six games.
Major League sources said the Red Sox were among a handful of teams who dug into the situation. Their determination was Munoz became discontent by what he saw as a poorly defined role and lack of communication.
That was exacerbated by the departure of teammates Jose Martinez and Marcell Ozuna, who served as mentors. Martinez was traded to Tampa Bay in January, and Ozuna signed with Atlanta as a free agent two weeks later.
Purely from a baseball standpoint, the Sox saw Munoz as an aggressive hitter who will get overmatched at times, but controls the bat well enough to use the entire field.
His athleticism and defensive versatility were plusses.
“He’s probably not an everyday player, but he’s valuable in different ways,” a National League scout said. “He can stay on a fastball. He’s a confident hitter.”
Munoz, recovered from his hamstring strain, will compete for a bench job with Jonathan Arauz, C.J. Chatham, Marco Hernandez, and Tzu-Wei Lin.
Teams can keep 30 players for the first two weeks of the season, then 28 the next two weeks, and 26 for the remainder. With the extra roster spots and likelihood teams will have to be agile with their rosters because of the pandemic, Munoz could prove useful.