Red Sox bench players have a chance to step up
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Marwin Gonzalez started games at five positions for the World Series champion Houston Astros last season.
But to call him a bench player would be inaccurate. Gonzalez started 120 games, had 515 plate appearances, and finished fifth on the team with 4.3 WAR.
That left a deep impression on Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was Houston’s bench coach. He often talked to manager A.J. Hinch about how best to use Gonzalez to benefit other players on the roster.
With Gonzalez as an option, Hinch was able to give Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and other regulars extra days off.
“Marwin, for me, he was the MVP of that team and that coaching staff,” Cora said Sunday. “That’s the way I see it. It’s an extra starter that you have, another card that you can use on a regular basis.”
Now Cora is looking for his own version of Gonzalez, a super utility player who is essentially a starter. He wants to feel comfortable resting his starters with an eye on the postseason.
Ideally, that player would be Eduardo Nunez over the long run. The infielder gave the Red Sox an offensive spark last season as a second baseman, shortstop, and third baseman.
But Nunez will be starting at second base when the season begins, as Dustin Pedroia continues to recover from knee surgery. That could last two months into the season.
For Brock Holt, Tzu-Wei Lin, Deven Marrero, and Blake Swihart, how Cora wants to use his roster has created opportunity.
Swihart has impressed at the plate and offers the ability to catch, along with playing first base and left field. Lin is also getting a good look. The 24-year-old from Taiwan leads the Red Sox with 70 defensive innings in spring training. He has split time at second base, third base, shortstop, and center field.
“Defensively, he’s a shortstop for a championship-caliber team,” Cora said. “I feel that way. That’s what caught my eye.”
Lin came up as a shortstop, and that is where he’s most comfortable. But he is comfortable at third base and gaining confidence at second base and center field.
“Second base is different because of the angles,” he said. “But I’m getting used to it.”
Center field is still a learning experience. Lin first played there in 2016 with Double A Portland, then had 27 games last season for Portland and Triple A Pawtucket.
“When the ball comes right at you, it’s hard to see sometimes,” he said. “I’m still not sure about center. But I’m trying.”
Lin is better than he thinks. At least two scouts who have watched Lin play center field in spring training feel that could be his best position in time because of his athletic ability.
Lin laughed when he heard that assessment.
“I think I’m a better shortstop,” he said. “But I’m glad they feel that way.”
That Lin is part of the conversation is a surprise, given where he was a year ago. A poor hitter in his first five professional seasons, he didn’t merit an invitation to major league spring training.
But he hit .302 with an .870 OPS for Portland through 48 games and was promoted directly to the majors on June 24. In two stints with the Sox, Lin played second base, third base, and shortstop and hit .268.
Lin believes the offensive surge was related to getting stronger physically and being encouraged to take more aggressive swings.
“His at-bats are good; he controls his strike zone,” Cora said.
Lin is 4 for 25 (.160) in 14 games this spring with six walks. That surprised Cora when he reviewed the stats.
“You see the batting average, and you don’t see the same thing [on the field],” Cora said. “That’s a good sign, because he’s putting up quality at-bats. His confidence is getting bigger and bigger. We’re very happy with the way that he has played.”
Lin also has fit into the clubhouse well, a product of learning English to a point that he does not need a translator anymore.
“He’s a professional; people like him,” Cora said. “This guy is going to contribute. He’s a big leaguer.”
Lin and his wife Kai-Li Jhu had their first child in September, a daughter named Shin-En. They are together for spring training.
“Hopefully, I’ll be on the major league team,” Lin said. “The last year has been a big step.”