When Bobby Dalbec entered spring training this year, expectations were high for the Red Sox infielder with light-tower power. In his debut season in 2020, in a 23-game sample size, he had hit .263 with eight homers, a .359 on-base percentage, and a .600 slugging percentage in 92 plate appearances.
Despite the fact that he came up primarily as a third baseman, Dalbec was serviceable at first base, a position where he had little experience. He was sure-handed and athletic enough to make that diagonal adjustment across the diamond. The Sox had a potential Rookie of the Year candidate on their hands.
But success isn’t linear. Nor is it guaranteed. This past season, Dalbec experienced the full gamut — failure, doubt, then success. His season was the ultimate roller coaster story.
Let’s take a peek at Dalbec’s 2021 season, and what the Red Sox first base position might look like moving forward.
As the trade deadline neared, the Red Sox had problems at first base. They had posted minus-1.3 wins above replacement at the position, which ranked as the worst in the league. Their first basemen had hit a collective .204, third-worst in baseball, while slugging just .368.
Much of that fell on Dalbec, who had hit .219 with a whopping 36.8 percent strikeout rate. He also had just 12 walks in his first 258 plate appearances, something that shocked manager Alex Cora.
“The swing and misses, we knew it was part of the equation,” Cora said in July. “But also plate discipline. There aren’t too many walks lately, right? That part of it surprised me.”
The Sox attempted to platoon at first base, but nothing seemed to work. They needed more oomph from that position, even if it meant turning to a player, Kyle Schwarber, who had never played there. Or reuniting with a former Red Sox prospect, Travis Shaw. The Sox claimed Shaw off waivers from the Brewers in mid-August after acquiring Schwarber from the Nationals at the trade deadline.
Dalbec hit his stride in the last 61 games of the season, batting .269/.344/.611 with 15 homers, 11 doubles, 2 triples, and 42 RBIs. He finished the season batting .240 with a .792 OPS. He walked more, too, drawing 16 in his final 195 plate appearances. His defense improved and he looked smoother at first base.
The numbers on the surface could be the sign of some sort of awakening. But even with that, the Red Sox stayed away from Dalbec down the stretch when he struggled with velocity. They also liked Schwarber’s plate discipline.
Schwarber’s return seemed to hinge upon J.D. Martinez’s decision whether or not to opt out. But it never came to that as Schwarber decided to become a free agent after declining his $11.5 million mutual option
Here is where the outlook at first base becomes a bit wrinkly for Dalbec and the Sox, especially with up-and-coming prospect Triston Casas lurking in the background. Casas is coming off a silver medal in the Tokyo Olympics this summer, having drawn praise from former Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who managed Team USA.
Casas hit .279/.394/.484 between Double A Portland and Triple A Worcester. His approach is the polar opposite of Dalbec’s, as he cuts down on strikeouts by widening his stance with two strikes.
Could Casas be the Red Sox’ first baseman of the future? Maybe. If that’s the case, the Red Sox could be in a position to get some return on Dalbec, who might benefit from being with another team where he can play third base, a position where he’s a plus defender.
While there have been no such declarations about the position, here’s a reality check: Dalbec has had success at the big league level; Casas hasn’t.
One thing is certain, though: Casas is hungry.
“I don’t want to be a major league player, I want to be an All-Star-caliber player for decades in the major leagues,” Casas said in July. “That’s the goal. That’s the standard.”
Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom always talks about developing depth. At first base, between Casas and Dalbec, this might be a prime example of it.
Primary 2021 starter: Bobby Dalbec
Projected 2022 starter: Bobby Dalbec
Major league depth: Franchy Cordero, Josh Ockimey, Yairo Muñoz
Prospects to watch: Triston Casas, Niko Kavadas, Blaze Jordan, Tyreque Reed
Read the rest of the Around the Horn series
- Here’s where things stand with the Red Sox rotation
- Where things stand with the Red Sox bullpen — the free agents and the returners — as the offseason begins