One of the oldest adages in baseball is that a team must be strong up the middle to succeed. Whether that’s true or not, it’s undeniably a tough assignment for even the most creative manager when there’s uncertainty at catcher, shortstop, second base, and center field.
For Alex Cora and the Red Sox, a complicated puzzle looks almost impossible to solve with the news that Trevor Story had surgery on his right elbow Monday in Texas and will miss much, if not all, of the coming season.
The Sox were counting on Story to replace franchise icon Xander Bogaerts at shortstop and hit in the middle of the lineup. Now, with spring training only five weeks away, the Sox have another hole to fill after Story was injured last month while throwing.
It was obvious last March when the Sox signed Story to a six-year, $140 million contract that it was to play second base temporarily, then move to shortstop if Bogaerts left the team as a free agent.
Other teams weren’t so sure. Scouts were concerned about the stability of Story’s elbow. His throws from second base, while almost always accurate and on time, lacked velocity.
“Obviously recognizing that his throwing has not been what it was in the past, everything when we did the physical and signed him looked good and he felt good throughout the season,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said Tuesday. “What he experienced [in December] in this incident was something new.”
New to the extent that surgery was required. But it was evident all last season that Story’s elbow was an issue. It underlines the risk Bloom took in failing to retain Bogaerts.
Story had a modified version of Tommy John surgery that uses a tape-like product to repair the ligament as opposed to a tendon from somewhere else in the body. Story could potentially return in six months but Bloom made it clear the Sox can’t rely on that.
Like Story’s ligament, the tightrope Bloom was walking with his roster has unraveled.
Other than Kiké Hernández, the Sox do not have a player who has started at least 81 games at catcher, second, shortstop, or center field in one season.
The plan was for Hernández to play center and that’s likely where he stays. He is capable of playing shortstop but has only 10 starts there the last three seasons.
The only other center fielder on the roster is Jarren Duran, who started 73 games there last season when Hernández was on the injured list and was terrible.
Rob Refsnyder has experience in center but is a career backup with a .717 OPS the last five seasons. The Sox prefer Alex Verdugo stays in right field.
Christian Arroyo is solid defensively at second base but has been on the injured list four times in the last two seasons and missed 77 games.
New primary catcher Reese McGuire is a career reserve. His backup, Connor Wong, has played 33 games in the majors.
Bloom said the Sox wanted to improve up the middle even before Story’s injury. Now they seemingly have no choice.
“It’s something we were already actively discussing even before this,” he said. “Our expectation was always that in some way, shape or form we would have outside additions joining our position player group.”
That won’t be easy as the free agent market is picked over. José Iglesias is the best shortstop available. Bringing Jackie Bradley Jr. back for a third time to help out in center field seems unlikely.
Jurickson Profar, who can play multiple positions, could be helpful. Could 35-year-old Josh Harrison handle second base?
Another complication: With Story out, the Sox are top-heavy with lefthanded hitters and need better options from the right side.
The trade market, which Bloom has long mentioned as a possibility, has been slow to develop. But now other teams hold more leverage on the Sox when talks are held.
Then there’s this: Even with Story in the lineup, the Sox were not projected to be a playoff team with the departures of Bogaerts, Nate Eovaldi, J.D. Martinez, and Christian Vázquez since July.
Should the Sox spend prospect capital to improve the roster of a second-division team? Unless they can acquire a player who can impact the roster beyond this season, what is the point?
You can’t give up on the season before it starts. But on the same day the Sox announced that spring training tickets go on sale later this week, what the future holds beyond that became even more cloudy.