With the news of David Ortiz’s soreness in his heels breaking this past weekend, the prospects for Big Papi to play on Opening Day seem to be all but dashed. How long it will take Ortiz to get back into the lineup is a major question mark at this point, leaving the Red Sox organization to ponder what course of action they’ll take to patch the obviously large hole that Ortiz’s absence will create in the lineup.
Manager John Farrell has suggested that he’ll cycle players through the position on an ongoing basis, but didn’t appear ready to say who, exactly, would be involved in that rotation. Thus, here we are today, taking a look at some of the players who may be involved and the ups and downs associated with each potential candidate in the temporary DH role.
Of the available options, Jonny Gomes seems to make the most sense on its face – if for nothing more than he’s A.) already on the 25-man roster; B.) has experience DH-ing in the past; and C.) is far and away the worst defensive player on the team outside of Ortiz. Simply call up another outfielder – namely Jackie Bradley Jr. and voila! Problem solved!
But there are things to consider here. For one, the Red Sox would probably want Gomes – as bad as he is – to start getting his reps in LF in April, not sometime in May. LF in Fenway isn’t particularly difficult to master, but there IS a learning curve – one I’m sure the organization wants him to experience as early as possible when the season starts and not later on down the road. Gomes being MORE lost defensively could end up making a bad defensive situation that much worse.
What’s also interesting is Gomes’ splits playing in the field versus DH-ing. Gomes has a career slash of .259/.334/.460 and a .345 wOBA when he plays in the field. When he’s the designated hitter, he’s hit .227/.338/.424. While the difference isn’t staggering, it’s worth considering. That his glove would be bad enough to erase the difference in offensive performance over a small sample would be a hard case to make, meaning that it’d probably make more sense to let him play in the field if Ortiz’s injury only leaves him out for a brief period of time. On the other hand, if Ortiz’s injury keeps on the shelf for an extended period of time, it probably makes more sense to DH Gomes and mitigate the self-inflicted damage he’ll inevitably do with the glove.
On the topic of options who aren’t exactly defensive swashbucklers, Red Sox prospect Ryan Lavarnway is also a name that’s come up as a potential DH-fill in. Lavarnway has hit well at the minor league level, posting a strong .398 wOBA in two seasons with the Pawtucket Red Sox. While his glove has held him back during his development, many in the organization feel that his bat will inevitably make him a full member of the active roster at some point in the near future.
The last two call-ups have produced mixed results so far, with Lavarnway showing flashes of brilliance along side long stretches of confusion and futility. Despite the false starts, there’s still plenty of optimism to go around, especially given his recent defensive improvements behind the plate. Still, it’s hard to make a convincing case that a call up is in the cards this early in the season.
The first issue is directly related to his catching – or in this case – the lack thereof. With David Ross and Jarrod Saltalamacchia already occupying almost all of the current catching duties, Lavarnway won’t be getting many reps behind the plate. While he might give Mike Napoli the occasional respite at 1B, it’s unlikely that there’s any defensive use for him on the 25-man roster at this point. Like Gomes, defensive reps are a priority with Lavarnway and the inability to get the time behind the plate he needs could be enough to take him out of the running altogether.
The second issue could be one of confidence. Call ups and send downs are delicate matters, and no matter how much a General Manager or Manager tells a player that they’ll be part of a long-term plan, getting sent down to the minors is still a blow to a player’s confidence. Especially considering his putrid .157/.211/.248 performance at the end of last season, another poor performance – even in a small sample – could be a significant set back to Lavarnway’s overall development.
The flip side of that argument presents issues as well. If Lavarnway were to come up and rake right off the bat, then what do you do with him when Ortiz comes back? Sending him down wouldn’t be an option. Trading him most certainly wouldn’t be an option, either. Who goes, who stays and while it’d be a good problem for the Red Sox to have, it would cause quite the stir on a roster that has had more than its fill the past two years.
And then there’s the last complicated conundrum to consider – and that’s what to do if he starts instantly raking at AAA? While keeping him in the minors is the path of least resistance, there’s a very good chance he does what he’s been doing and makes a third consecutive case to be called up and given the chance to play at the Major League Level. Sometimes, there’s nothing worse for a player’s development than keeping him in the Minors when he’s clearly ready for advancement. Would leaving him in the minors right off the bat be setting up for issues down the road? Or, more specifically – are there inevitably issues coming down the road that the Red Sox will have to address with Lavarnway – and would it be better for them to address them now instead of later while they have the opportunity?
Is your head spinning, too? Welcome to the club. Lavarnway’s development presents a challenging issue to deal with, but it’s not necessarily a ‘problem.’ While it does leave the Red Sox with many uncomfortable questions to grapple with, the changing conditions and pending opening at DH make it so that considering a promotion has to be taken under heavy consideration.
Speaking of being stuck in prospect purgatory, I read a sensational piece about two weeks ago over at Hardball Times where John Kochurov pondered the fate of seemingly good players who get caught in the minors and why that was. Throughout the piece, he talks about how there’s something to be said for players who bloom later in their careers and that if organizations are patient – that serious value can be found. He cites Raul Ibanez, Josh Willingham and Casey Blake as compelling examples in support of his argument.
Sometimes, he opined – organizations get too caught up in what a player can’t do as opposed to what he can. For example – if a player only hits 20 HR’s, the organization wonders why he hasn’t hit 30 and don’t value the 20 as much as they should. That brings me to the last option on the list – and that’s Mauro Gomez.
Gomez isn’t a guy who’s going to be particularly flashy or sexy, but he fits the mold of a player who seems to have found his stride at the plate later on in his career and may in fact – be more valuable that he appears. In the past three seasons, he’s hit a very strong .298/.358/.527 at the AA and AAA levels and has flashed plenty of power – hitting over 24 HR’s in three of the past four seasons.
The Oliver projection system – over the course of a full, healthy season – has him hitting .247/.308/.446 with 26 HR’s for a total of 1.2 fWAR. Other projection systems are even friendlier, with Steamer having him at .269/.320/.455 in 100 PA’s and ZiPS projecting him at .252/.302/.423 in 574 PA’s. Obviously this isn’t Ibanez, Willingham or Blake in waiting, but Gomez could present the Red Sox with a low-risk opportunity to mine for some surprise value.
What limited track record we got last year showed him to be a flawed, but capable hitter that showed strong platoon tendencies. While platoon players don’t usually get me too excited, this is a case where that might be a good thing. Gomez crushed RHP last year to the tune of .315/.356/.556. Platooning him with Gomes (who is equally capable against LHP) might be a sensible solution. It would keep Gomes in the field more often than not while giving them a solid RH hitter in a confined sample. His ability to play 1B and 3B could also come in handy in certain situations.
So maybe the solution isn’t one or the other, but a combination of pieces. What can be said though, is that there are plenty of viable options for the Red Sox to explore – options that could give them an opportunity to find a lot of value in unexpected places – namely a hole created by arguably the best hitter in their lineup.