Fifty games do not a season make. The season is barely one-third over. But it’s never too soon to think about second-guessing and some repercussions from last winter.
This is always a fun exercise: playing “What if?” when it comes to free agent signings and trade discussions. What would have happened if some of the things the Red Sox tried to make happen actually happened.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that some of those proposed moves would have worked and others would not.
One of the first moves the Sox attempted last off-season was to sign veteran slugger Jose Abreu to a multi-year deal, presumably to (mostly) DH and replace J.D. Martinez. Instead, Abreu went with the Houston Astros. That sigh of relief you hear? It’s coming from the Baseball Operations offices at Fenway Park.
Late last November, according to an industry source, chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom went to sleep believing the Red Sox had an agreement in principle with Abreu, with only some minor contractual matters to be completed. But when Bloom awoke, he was greeted with the news that Abreu had spurned the Sox and signed a three-year, $58.5 million deal with the Astros. Bloom was informed that the Red Sox would not have the option of revising his offer and the deal was done.
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At the time, it seemed like a poor start to the offseason. Now, it seems like the Red Sox got lucky. Abreu has been horrendous with the Astros, with a slash line of .222/.280/259. Incredibly, he did not have a single homer in his first 45 games.
At the other end of the spectrum sits Nathan Eovaldi. Eovaldi had interest in returning to the Red Sox, and the Sox had some interest in retaining him. The Red Sox gave Eovaldi a qualifying offer — which would have guaranteed him in excess of $18 million for one year — which Eovaldi rejected.
Not long after, the Sox made a three-year offer to Eovaldi, which was also turned down. Believing that the path to a agreement with Eovaldi was now gone, the Sox spent their money elsewhere, allocating some of it to both Masataka Yoshida and closer Kenley Jansen.
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Eovaldi’s rejection of the Sox’ offer proved to be ill-fated for the pitcher, who took a two-year deal with Texas that gave him less than the offer the Sox had previously pitched. Either way, a reunion with Eovaldi would have been a good move for the Sox, since the righthander is off to a terrific start with the Rangers, going 6-2, with a 2.60 with two complete games, matching the total for his career.
Another starter on whom the Sox focused was Zach Eflin, a swingman they envisioned using as a starter. The Sox offered essentially the same contract as the Tampa Bay Rays did, but the absence of state income tax in Florida made the Tampa offer more appealing. That, plus Eflin’s desire to pitch near home — he grew up in the Orlando area — won the day.
Eflin has pitched reasonably well for the Rays, going 6-1 with a 3.45 ERA in eight starts.
Another starter in the Sox’ sights was lefty Andrew Heaney, a veteran lefty whose performance has not always matched his stuff. Again, the Sox bid was commensurate with the one offered by the Texas Rangers, but again, no state income tax and proximity to home — Heaney is an Oklahoma native — proved too much for the Sox to overcome.
So far, Heaney has been perfectly mediocre — 3-3 with a 4.13 ERA in nine starts for Texas. It’s tough to see the Red Sox experiencing much regret here, since Heaney was given two years and $25 million.
Two infielders the Sox had discussions about — free agent infielder Brandon Drury and trade target Kolton Wong — have both had mixed starts to their seasons.
With the Red Sox middle infield situation unsettled, the Sox explored several possibilities. The Milwaukee Brewers were looking to cut payroll and were willing to move Wong, who was ultimately dealt to Seattle. That’s a good thing for the Red Sox, given how he’s played for the Mariners — .170/.250/.200 with no homers and a measly eight RBI in 34 games.
Drury has been about as advertised, re-signing with the Angels: a .737 OPS, almost exactly in line with his career performance (.737) to go with seven homers.
Meanwhile, the Sox also lost out to the New York Yankees on reliever Tommy Kahnle, and so far, that qualifies as a “happy miss” on the part of the Sox since Kahnle was shut down in spring training with biceps tendinitis and is still working his way back on a rehab assignment after a stint on the 60-day IL.
Kahnle may still prove to be a valuable bullpen piece going forward, but his injury history — he’s pitched more than 27 innings in a season just once since 2017 — suggests there will be further struggles to come.
Sometime in the next few weeks, the Red Sox will get a healthy Adam Duvall back, recovered from his broken wrist suffered in the second week of the season.
That will create a logjam in the team’s outfield alignment. The starting trio of, from left to right, Masataka Yoshida, Jarren Duran and Alex Verdugo, has been superb. Verdugo has been arguably the team’s best overall player while Yoshida has overcome a slow start to become a dynamic offensive performer. Duran, meanwhile, has improved greatly — both in the field and at the plate.
As an above-average defender with as much power as anyone on the roster other than Rafael Devers, Duvall needs to play virtually every day. It doesn’t hurt that Duvall is a right-handed run producer, something the Sox otherwise generally lack with Verdugo, Yoshida, Devers and Triston Casas all hitting from the left side.
So, what to do?
Verdugo has to remain the everyday fixture in right, especially considering how improved he’s been at the position this season. And certainly, the club is not about to reduce playing time for Yoshida, who leads all club regulars in on-base percentage, OPS and OPS+ and is third in both total bases and slugging.
One solution, especially against lefties: play Duvall in center, have Rob Refsnyder or Duran in left, move Yoshida to DH and have Justin Turner play first base.
Casas is struggling overall, but especially so against lefties (.167), and having Turner at first removes a weak lefty bat.
Of course, this isn’t optimal. The Red Sox would prefer Turner mostly DH so as to reduced the wear-and-tear on the team’s oldest (38) player.
But that lineup configuration only works against lefties, who make up about a third of the games. What about the rest of the time?
It wouldn’t be fair — or prudent — to bury Duran considering how well he’s played for the past month or so. And the Sox won’t. He’s provided offense from wherever he’s hit — anywhere from fifth to ninth — and now that he’s improved the routes he takes, his defensive play is no longer a liability. And then there’s his speed, which, oddly, has been somewhat underutilized with just seven steals (in seven tries).
Another possibility: trying Duvall at first base. He’s played 43 games there over his career, though the last time he did so was in 2018. It’s not a perfect solution, but should Duvall be open to it, it gives the Sox a chance to have Turner, Yoshida, Duran and Duvall a chance to be in the lineup together.
It won’t be much of an issue initially, as the Sox will want to ease Duvall back into the lineup and limit his workload as he regains full strength in the wrist. But eventually, it’s going to lead to some tough decisions.
Although his offense has dipped in recent weeks, Connor Wong’s play behind the plate continues to draw raves. Wong has thrown out 8 of 22 would-be base-stealers (36 percent) and is tied for first among catchers in defensive runs saved with six.
He also ranks fourth in the American League in defensive WAR, as determined by BaseballReference.com.
At the start of the season, it was expected that Reese McGuire would assume the role of No. 1 catcher. But Wong has clearly surpassed him for that honor, having started 31 of the first 50 games of the season.
While Wong’s emergence defensively may caught some by surprise, Chad Epperson is not among them. Epperson, now the Sox’ Double A manager at Portland and once the organization’s former catching instructor, thought Wong had this potential.
“The games that I’ve seen, he’s looked very comfortable,” said Epperson. “His actions are under control, just from him setting up side-to-side. It looks like he’s giving himself time to catch the ball. I try to catch up on (reports) and my understanding is, they’re very pleased with the way he’s progressing.”
“Athletic” is often a word used to describe Wong’s play behind the plate, which seems like an odd term for someone whose job it is to squat and catch the ball. But Epperson said the term is appropriate.
“Back in the day, you’d always put the big kid back there,” said Epperson. “But you’re starting to see a trend where these guys are athletes and the way they move — they’re not rigid, they’re not stiff. Even on one knee, they can be athletic. I always tell our catchers, when they’re running down to first to back up a ground ball, watch the shortstop and how athletic his moves are and how smooth he is.
“It’s the same way we want the catchers to be when we make our throws and make our moves behind the plate. They’re athletes, for sure, and Connor is one.”
When Wong came to the Sox as part of the infamous Mookie Betts deal, he had played some infield (second base and third) in the Dodgers organization. But the Sox made it clear to him that they viewed him as a catcher first and foremost.
“When you come to the ballpark knowing that this is my position, you develop a mindset. And the opportunity to work with Jason Varitek means you’re only going to trend in the right direction. It happened quick for him. There were a lot of hurdles that probably kept him from really getting a lot of playing time initially, like COVID and some other stuff. But I’m really pleased that he’s getting an opportunity to not only show all the work he’s put in, but also, that he can handle the job.”
Teams ran on McGuire early in the season, but Wong stepped up to shut down opponents’ running games.
“The arm works,” said Epperson. “It’s an easy arm. There’s no labor in his throwing. He’s got easy carry, good extension when he throws the ball. So for him, it’s just being able to synch up, not let the ball play him and get it out. He’ll throw out the guys he’s supposed to throw out.”
1) I’m skeptical about how well Corey Kluber is going to fare in the bullpen. He hasn’t pitched in relief in a decade and in this era, when the most successful relievers deliver plus-plus velocity, his stuff would seem ill-suited. Beyond that, he’s got to dramatically cut down his walk rate to have any success, regardless of role. But the team’s willingness to demote him rather than Tanner Houck signals a sense of urgency and a willingness to do whatever is necessary to help the team — without regard to status or past achievement.
2) Let it never be said that Aaron Judge is feeling any pressure after signing his gargantuan contract with the Yankees last offseason. Judge recently belted eight homers in the span of nine games, and with all the injuries striking the rest of the Yankee roster, is almost singlehandedly keeping the Yanks afloat. Judge may be somewhat behind his record-breaking 62 homer season of a year ago, but he’s very much looking like a contender for the AL MVP award — again.
3) After two previous plans fell through, finally, it seems like the Oakland A’s have a deal with Las Vegas to build a new 30,000-seat ballpark with a retractable roof, set to be open for the 2027 season. Now that that business if out of the way, perhaps the franchise and MLB can turn its attention to determining where the A’s are going to play the next three seasons after this one. (Their lease in Oakland runs through 2024, but there are two more seasons to account for after that one). And then, perhaps something can be done about the product on the field, where the A’s are “winning” at a less-than-20 percent clip.