An abyss formed at second base for the Red Sox in 2020, a seemingly bottomless pit that contributed to a sinking offense.
Second basemen leaguewide last year had a .686 OPS, the worst at any position. No position in baseball had a lower offensive bar to clear. Yet even against that backdrop, the Sox were woeful: .586, forged from a .220 average, .273 on-base, and .313 slugging mark, dead last in the big leagues.
It won’t be hard to improve, potentially by a considerable margin. But what form might that improvement take? The team has options.
“There are 14 second basemen on the market you can sign to start at second base next year,” observed one agent, who added that Korean star shortstop Ha-Seong Kim, who has been posted for bids by the Kiwoom Heroes in the KBO, could also be considered for the position.
Within that, the Sox could move in a number of directions.
“I don’t think we’re closed off to adding an everyday second baseman, someone who has established themselves as that, if that’s where the opportunity is and that’s what shows itself to be best for our roster,” said chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “But it’s also someplace where we could go a different route, and we can pick someone who can be part of the solution there, might be able to add to our depth, to our flexibility, and still offer opportunity for other players, whether it’s now or down the road, to step up and play a larger role.”
Understanding those possibilities starts with a look at the team’s internal options at second.
Red Sox second basemen
The team cycled through José Peraza (.224/.258/.294 at second base), Jonathan Araúz (.184/.226/.224), Michael Chavis (.240/.269/.320), and Tzu-Wei Lin (.091/.083/.091) before finally getting some production from Christian Arroyo (.273/.333/.500, with the team’s only three homers from the position).
Peraza and Lin were peeled off the 40-man rosters and signed elsewhere as minor league free agents. Both Araúz and Chavis have to prove they belong in the big leagues; after irregular playing time in 2020, their development may best be served by steady playing time in the minors while cultivating their defensive versatility.
Arroyo, claimed off waivers from Cleveland, was promising, particularly given that the 2013 first-rounder is still just 25. Still, his .215/.280/.342 line from 2017-19, significant injury history, and the fact he was waived suggests that the Sox need to hedge their bets for 2021.
Yet there is hope on the horizon. Jeter Downs, the No. 2 prospect in the system who came to the Red Sox in the Mookie Betts deal, projects as an above-average everyday second baseman, perhaps by 2022. A player signed for one or two years could serve as a bridge to Downs, while potential longer-term options could allow the Sox to consider using Downs as a fairly significant trade chip.
D.J. LeMahieu has been exceptional in two years with the Yankees, hitting .336/.386/.536 while finishing in the top-four of MVP balloting in both seasons, but the Sox are unlikely to sign a 32-year-old to a long-term deal. Particularly given that his batted-ball profile — a righthanded hitter who drills liners to the opposite field — represents an ideal fit for Yankee Stadium but a poor one for Fenway.
Ha-Seong Kim is different. In his age-24 season in the KBO, the shortstop hit .306/.397/.523 with 30 homers and 23 steals in 25 attempts — a five-tool star in the league. If he’s open to playing second, his age and performance would fit the Sox’ vision of upgrading their long-term talent base.
There’s risk associated with a player transitioning between leagues — the Sox, after all, just saw Rusney Castillo’s seven-year, $72.5 million deal conclude — but Kim’s talent is considerable. In all likelihood, he’s the only open-market second base option this winter for whom the Sox would consider a deal of more than two years.
In defense of patience
The Sox experienced a plate-discipline collapse in 2020, and their second basemen contributed to the team’s sky-high chase rate (swings at 34.2 percent of pitches out of the zone, 3rd highest in the majors) and poor walk rate (8.1 percent of plate appearances, 22nd in MLB). Defensively, their second basemen also graded as slightly below average according to both Defensive Runs Saved (two runs below average) and Ultimate Zone Rating (1.7 runs below).
Some of the one- to two-year options could address both deficiencies. Switch-hitter César Hernández, 30, had an excellent 2020 season for Cleveland, hitting .283/.355/.408 (including .297/.373/.419 against righties). Kolten Wong, 30, hit .265/.350/.326, hitting for virtually no power but getting on base with characteristic frequency. Both won Gold Gloves and played outstanding defense.
Tommy La Stella, 31, quietly had one of the best offensive years of any second baseman outside of LeMahieu, hitting .281/.370/.449, though his defense is below average and his lefthanded pull stroke is not ideally suited to take advantage of Fenway.
Second … and more
Rather than looking narrowly at second base, the Red Sox could consider a player who might help primarily at second, but with the flexibility to give the team depth at other positions in an effort to take advantage of matchups.
Three free agents, in particular, fit that mold: Switch-hitters Jurickson Profar (.278/.343/.428 with seven homers while moving between second and left as a 27-year-old for the Padres in 2020) and Marwin González (.211/.286/.320 while playing first, second, third, and right, down from .255/.323/.411 across seven positions in 2018-19), as well as righthanded hitter Kiké Hernández (.230/.270/.410 as a 29-year-old in 2020, primarily as a second baseman but with plenty of time in the outfield as well).
Hernández has chiefly been employed as a force against lefties, while Profar and González have more balanced career splits.
Former All-Star Jason Kipnis had a solid year against righties (.272/.343/.457) for the Cubs.
Though his middle-infield defense has slipped, Brad Miller continues to deliver power and patience against righties (.240/.364/.464 in 2020).
Jonathan Schoop offers power, but his hyper-aggressive offensive approach suggests that he might not be an ideal fit if the Red Sox want to find a second baseman who can help them address their on-base issues of a year ago.
Switch-hitter Jonathan Villar had a down year in 2020 (.232/.301/.292 with the Marlins and Blue Jays) but offers up-the-middle versatility at short, second, and center, and had a strong 2019 campaign (.274/.339/.453 with 24 homers and 40 steals).
Dee Strange-Gordon and Joe Panik are former All-Stars whose offensive production has been limited over the last several years.
. . .
Former Red Sox amateur scout Quincy Boyd, who played a key role in convincing the team to draft Jackie Bradley Jr. in the supplemental first round of the 2011 draft, has been hired as a scout by the Orioles. Boyd was among the nine Red Sox baseball operations staffers whose contracts were not renewed at the end of the season.