Bobby Dalbec is with the Red Sox in Florida as part of the three-person traveling taxi squad. But how much longer will it be until one of the team’s top prospects gets his big league opportunity?
Michael Chavis will play a sizable role in shaping the answer to that question. Increasingly, the 24-year-old’s hold on a roster spot seems tenuous.
Chavis is off to a woeful start, 3-for-19 with nine strikeouts and just one walk in 20 plate appearances, resulting in a .158/.200/.316 line. The season-opening struggles represent a continuation of what occurred down the stretch in the infielder’s rookie campaign, when the jolt he provided to the offense in April and May quickly leveled off.
From May 23 to the end of the 2019 season, Chavis hit .241/.293/.382 while striking out in more than one of every three plate appearances. Big league pitchers carved him up, attacking a hole at and above the top of the strike zone, and they haven’t relented. Since the start of last year, Chavis has struck out in 33.8 percent of plate appearances, third most in the big leagues among those with at least 400 PAs.
Those offensive struggles, in turn, have resulted in a significant reduction of playing time. While Chavis and Jose Peraza were expected to compete for time at second base at the start of spring training, Peraza won the job and has taken possession of the position. Chavis, meanwhile, has served only as the righthanded-hitting part of a platoon at first base — a role that team’s rarely view as worthy of a roster spot.
(The fact that teams are working with an expanded 30-player roster to open the season has created greater latitude for the Sox to keep Chavis in his role, but rosters shrink to 28 players on Thursday.)
While Chavis isn’t playing every day, he did start in six of the team’s first 10 games as the Sox faced a wealth of lefties. The Sox view his struggles as a product not of inactivity, but instead approach.
“He’s getting plenty of playing time to get this thing going. I think he’s making progress,” said Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke. “I think he’s making progress. If he continues to do that, hopefully he gets hot like he did last year when he came up. If he does that, we’ve got a really good combo with him and [first base platoon partner Mitch Moreland].”
To be sure, Chavis is amidst a very normal pattern for a young player: Early success with a mid-year callup, a performance dip later in that rookie season as the league adjusts to his strengths and weaknesses, and often profound struggles in a player’s first full season. Most recent Red Sox position players, save for the well-nigh incomparable Mookie Betts, endured such a pattern.
With young players, there is reward for patience. Teams consider a willingness to ride out struggles as a sort of long-term investment in a player who learns how to navigate adversity.
Nonetheless, there have been plenty who, amidst those struggles, benefited from the opportunity to recalibrate their games in the minors. Betts shuttled between the big leagues and Triple A in 2014. Jackie Bradley did so between 2013 and 2015. Rafael Devers was given extra time in the minors coming off an injury in 2018 to regain his approach.
Chavis may be arriving at a point where the length and extremity of his struggles, particularly the frequency with which he’s swung and missed, creates a question about whether he and the team benefit more from his ongoing presence in the big leagues or from time working at the alternate training site in Pawtucket.
“Honestly I wouldn’t say I feel any more pressure because of [questions about his role],” Chavis said over the weekend. “Whenever I go out there and I focus on my numbers, or try and focus on my own performance, I just don’t perform well. . . . In regards to the platoon aspect, I really don’t feel any pressure because [Moreland and Peraza are] playing well. I’m actually just happy that they’re playing well and they’re swinging it well and we’re working towards winning ballgames.”
That outlook is commendable, but at a certain point, the team will have to consider the matter of production — and whether there’s someone else who can improve upon it. Dalbec represents a source of intrigue.
Entering the year, Sox officials believed there was a good chance the 25-year-old — about six weeks older than Chavis — would help in the first half of 2020. He’s been a standout power hitter, blasting 59 homers in 2018–19, while showing an advanced approach and knowledge of the strike zone that belies his high strikeout rates. His defense at the two infield corners is also considered superior to Chavis’s.
While his asymptomatic COVID-19 infection at the start of July training camp required quarantine and left him rusty, the Sox believe he’s regained his timing during intrasquad games in Pawtucket.
“He’s swinging the bat better all the time,” said Roenicke. “Still hard to tell because they aren’t real games that they’re playing in. We just get reports on how he does and hopefully that translates into, if you need to, good at-bats in the game.”
The time for Dalbec to get those at-bats in a game has not yet arrived, at least for now. Still, it’s fair to wonder whether his presence on the taxi squad against the Rays is a precursor to a look in games that count. If Chavis cannot re-establish himself as the potential impact contributor he proved to be in early 2019, then Dalbec’s opportunity may be close at hand.