As the trade deadline entered its final 24 hours, anticipation grew. The Red Sox had moved swiftly in late June to add a complementary righthanded bat in Steve Pearce. At a time when Eduardo Rodriguez was on the DL, the team moved to solidify its rotation and provide some righthanded balance with the acquisition of Nathan Eovaldi. Just one checkbox remained: A bullpen arm.
Instead, on July 30, the team added second baseman Ian Kinsler from the Angels. Though the veteran had relatively modest numbers for the season (.240/.301/.380), he’d been resurgent in July, hitting .316/.386/.456.
“He was in such a groove,” said Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers. “It was just clicking for him.”
The Red Sox acquired him as a potential two-way upgrade, viewing him as someone who could shore up their leaky infield defense and also deliver competitive at-bats from the lower half of the lineup that would make an excellent lineup even deeper.
The cost seemed relatively modest at the time. The Sox parted with a pair of relievers on the 40-man roster — righthander Ty Buttrey and lefty Williams Jerez — who had flashed interesting stuff but who, despite good velocity, seemed somewhat too fastball-reliant to profile as potential bullpen weapons. They’d remained in Pawtucket while the Sox gave opportunities to other minor leaguers — not just Ryan Brasier and Brandon Workman, but also William Cuevas and Justin Haley — as depth options.
In his initial games in Boston, Kinsler looked like a potentially significant upgrade. He showed incredible defensive range on some plays up the middle, had good at-bats against the Yankees, and contributed via the running game. While he didn’t represent the bullpen upgrade that everyone expected the Red Sox to land, the Red Sox looked like a better team with him.
But on Aug. 3, Kinsler suffered a hamstring injury — a particularly concerning injury for a player whose game relies heavily on his legs. And since his two weeks on the sidelines, he has yet to make the same kind of all-around impact he was making before the injury.
In 34 games since returning from his hamstring injury, Kinsler has hit .230 with a .280 OBP and .295 slugging mark. His average exit velocity over that time of 85.1 miles per hour is in the bottom 20 percent in the majors.
Evaluators believe he hasn’t had his hitting base beneath him to drive the ball with consistency. His defensive range at second base — typically outstanding, consistent with his Gold Glove-caliber reputation — has instead been roughly average.
“After the injury, I don’t think he’s settled in and found that stroke yet,” Hyers said. “He hasn’t found that connection to be consistent and drive the baseball.”
Kinsler has had a rough start to the postseason. Though he is 2 for 8 with an RBI double that he lofted off the Green Monster on Saturday night, he’s struck out five times and hit into a game-ending double play. He’s clearly searching, a notion reinforced when he and J.D. Martinez discussed Kinsler’s mechanics in the clubhouse following the Red Sox’ series-knotting 6-2 loss to the Yankees in Game 2 of the ALDS.
“We’re just talking about hitting,” Kinsler said. “It’s what baseball players do. That’s our job, to talk about hitting, try to figure out how to get better. We don’t just stay still and stagnant. [But] during the game, mechanics are out the door. You’re trying to do what it takes to get on base, to help the team, whatever it takes, try to get to a point where I can help every at-bat. That’s the key.”
Yet as his quest to produce continues, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Kinsler’s presence in the lineup is seemingly coming at the expense of playing time for the player who was one of the Red Sox’ hottest hitters down the stretch. In September, Brock Holt hit .354/.456/.667 with four homers — his most in any month of his career.
Kinsler has yet to improve the Red Sox in the ways they anticipated when they acquired him. And at this point, there’s at least a chance that Holt represents the superior option. Meanwhile, Buttrey excelled at times with the Angels in his big league debut, forging a 3.31 ERA and striking out 20 batters and earning four saves in 16⅓ innings. It remains to be seen whether his strong debut is real or a mirage, but at the least, it’s forced some observers of the team to wonder whether Buttrey would have been a more valuable addition to the Red Sox this summer than Kinsler.
There is still time, of course, for Kinsler to justify the deal, for him to make his mark in the postseason. But for now, Kinsler (along with third baseman Eduardo Nunez and catcher Sandy Leon) has been part of a bottom of the Red Sox lineup that the Yankees have neutralized, raising the obvious question of whether the team should pivot away from Kinsler as the Red Sox try to jumpstart their offense in Yankee Stadium.