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What We’d Like To See In September – Part Two – Position Players

With the calendar turned to September, we reach the final stretch of the baseball season.  The Red Sox hold a comfortable lead in the American League East (9.5 games over the Yankees going into Thursday’s games) and will have ample time to get the pieces in place for another October playoff run.  Earlier this week we began a series in which we’ll look at different parts of the Red Sox and identify what we’d like to see from them over the final month of the season.  Part One focused on the Red Sox starting pitchers. In this second installment, we look at the position players.

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Etched in Stone

Despite being on a pace to smash the team’s all-time regular season record for wins, the Red Sox starting lineup has been in flux for much of the season.  Injuries and inconsistent play have left the Red Sox shuffling players through first base, second base, third base, center field and catcher.  Heading into the final month of the season, question marks still remain at first, third, and catcher. 

The following positions appear to be set.

·        Designated Hitter – J.D. Martinez
·        Left Field – Andrew Benintendi
·        Center Field – Jackie Bradley, Jr.
·        Right Field – Mookie Betts
·        Second Base – Ian Kinsler
·        Shortstop – Xander Bogaerts

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J.D. Martinez:  It’s hard to argue with the consistency with which Martinez has played this season, one in which he is making a run at the Triple Crown.  But this is New England and we have to find fault with even the greatest players, so here it goes - Martinez has hit only two home runs since August 13th.  Though he has continued to hit (.347 in that stretch) and drive in runs, the impact of the long ball has been missing from his game.  In the playoffs, when facing better pitching, teams can’t rely on stringing hits together to score runs.  Martinez needs to rediscover his power stroke to take the pressure off the rest of the offense to produce runs.

Andrew Benintendi:  Since I anointed Benintendi as the third member of the Red Sox Big 3, predictably he fell into a slump and has hit only.243 with one home run since August 14th.  Sports writing, like hitting, is all about timing.  This isn’t the first slump Benny has endured this season.  He struggled for the first few weeks of the season, and hit another skid just before the All-Star Break.  Three hits in the final game in Atlanta was a good sign that Benny is once again finding his stroke.  The Red Sox will need Benintendi at his best if they hope to make a deep run in the playoffs.

Jackie Bradley, Jr.:  If you are a regular reader of this column, you know how I feel about Bradley.  You need his glove in center field every day and you put up with his offensive deficiencies.  His contributions on defense will be magnified even greater in the postseason when games are closer and a run saved can make the difference between winning and losing.  However, Bradley has turned it around at the bat, hitting .280 since August 1st.  If he can continue at that pace, or even slightly below, you gladly take it.

Mookie Betts:  Betts set a lofty standard for himself in the first half of the season, thrusting himself into the conversation for league MVP.  Betts has tailed off somewhat in the second half, and this is exemplified by his struggles leading off the game.  Betts has batted a paltry .056 (2/36 – both singles) in the first inning since the All-Star Break.  It is important in the playoffs to put pressure on a team from the first inning, and Betts needs to figure out his troubles with leading off.

Strikeouts have also been a greater issue recently for Betts.  His strikeout rate has increased from 11.8% in the first half to 18.1% in the second half.  Teams used to get Betts with breaking balls down and away, but more recently have been busting him with fastballs up and in.  Betts needs to make yet another adjustment to compensate.

Ian Kinsler:  Before acquiring Kinsler in mid-July, second base was grab bag of Eduardo Nunez and Brock Holt, with Dustin Pedroia returning briefly.  Kinsler solidified the position both offensively and defensively, and has also been a threat on the basepaths.  Since returning from the disabled list in mid-August, Kinsler has batted .295 and is third in the team in RBIs over that span.  He needs to do nothing more than what he has been doing and to remain healthy.  The September call-up of Brandon Phillips should help keep Kinsler fresh for October.

Xander Bogaerts:  Bogaerts has quietly put together the best season of his career.  He leads the team in doubles (41), is second in RBIs (89), and third in home runs (19).  Though he does not have tremendous range defensively, he makes all the plays he should make, and occasionally turns in a spectacular one.  He just needs to keep doing what he’s been doing and avoid those nagging injuries which seem to affect him from time to time.

Question Marks

Of the remaining positions (first base, third base, catcher), there remains enough uncertainty where the focus is not about what the individual needs to do to get ready for the playoffs, but rather, it is about who will emerge as the starter.  The possibility remains that no one will step up to claim their spot and we could be left with a platoon situation at all three.

Coming up in Part Two of What We’d Like To See In September, we will look at the starting position players.  You may think the starting lineup is established, but stay tuned for some surprises in the next BSoT Red Sox Column to be Named Later.

First Base – Mitch Moreland/Steve Pearce:  Give some credit to Dave Dombrowski on the acquisition of Pearce.  Pearce was brought in to be a supporting piece and right handed bat.  Pearce has crushed lefthanders at a .412 clip since joining the team.  Moreland has battled a few nagging injuries, most recently a bruised knee, that has kept him off the field and limited his productivity while on it.  The Red Sox will need Moreland in the playoffs when facing the stable of strong right-handed pitching (Verlander, Kluber, Severino, to name a few) the Red Sox can expect to face.  Moreland needs to regain his legs and return to form, but even if he does, expect a platoon with Pearce to continue into October.

Third Base – Eduardo Nunez/Rafael Devers:  Devers has been on and off the disabled list for most of the second half, however, prior to that he wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire.  He scuffled at the plate, showing occasional power, but far too often would get himself out chasing pitches out of the strike zone.  His defense, in a word, was atrocious.  Since shifting to third after the acquisition of Kinsler, Nunez has stabilized the hot corner defensively, and has begun to resemble the offensive player when he came over from the Giants last year.

Cora has given indications he is down on Devers and appears to be in no rush to give him back his starting job.  Nunez should no longer be needed to play second with expanded rosters, and can get a couple of days off per week to keep his legs fresh, and to give Devers a chance to find himself at the plate.  Though a platoon is possible in the playoffs, I expect it will be Nunez’s position to lose.

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Catcher – Blake Swihart/Christian Vazquez/Sandy Leon:  Leon struggled mightily at the plate during Vazquez’s time on the disabled list, batting only .111 since July 8th.  Swihart began to show signs he might be making a bid for more time behind the dish, but he was later placed on the DL and missed two weeks, putting a further load on Leon to literally be the “everyday” catcher.  Now that all three are healthy, Leon can take a bit of a breather.  I expect the Red Sox will return to the rotation they used earlier in the season with Leon catching for Chris Sale and Rick Porcello, and Vazquez catching the rest of the staff.  The Red Sox record with Leon in the starting lineup is 32-7 in his last 39 starts.  With improved production from Nunez and Bradley, you can afford to have a light-hitting catcher in your lineup if he makes your pitching better.

Swihart has improved tremendously defensively, and has hit far better than Leon or Vazquez, albeit in a small sample size.  The fact he is in the mix is a credit to the work he’s put in to improve himself.  He probably does not yet have the confidence of the pitching staff to start in the playoffs, but the flexibility he provides to the team as a pinch hitter and pinch runner solidifies his roster spot for the playoffs.

Coming up in third and final What We’d Like To See In September, we will look at the biggest question mark on the 2018 Red Sox – the bullpen.  Who will step up to be the eighth inning guy? Is there anyone we trust out there?  We’ll try to find the answers in the next BSoT Red Sox Column to be Named Later.

Follow Bill on Twitter @BTravers_BSoT.

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