The Boston Red Sox have plenty of holes to fill for 2015, but one of their most glaring points of weakness is at third base.
The Red Sox headed into 2014 with a reasonable amalgamation of talent at the hot corner. Will Middlebrooks was just a year removed from a promising 2012 campaign. Garin Cecchini looked poised to break into the majors. And capable backups like Jonathan Herrera and Brock Holt figured to provide extra depth should something go awry.
However, Red Sox third basemen have hit just .207/.267/.297 with eight homers this year—a startling lack of production from a group that includes Middlebrooks, Holt and Xander Bogaerts.
It’s obvious that the Red Sox need to address their lack of front-end starting pitching talent in the offseason, and that is indeed the team's biggest need. Yet Boston will also need to make a decision when it comes to third base, and while there are no shortage of options before them, there's no clear-cut answer, either.
The Red Sox might choose to try and solve their third base vacancy internally. They might look to the free-agent market for help. Or, they could try and swing a trade.
A deeper look at these various options shows that while the Sox have plenty of room to get creative, it's likely going to be difficult to fix third base without allocating substantial resources.
Few Red Sox have had as disappointing a 2014 campaign as Middlebrooks. Looking to cement himself as Boston's third baseman of the present and future, Middlebrooks has instead cast doubt on his role as an everyday MLB player.
In an injury-shortened year that's seen him reach just 179 PA in the majors, Middlebrooks is hitting .183/.251/.268 with a 29.6 strikeout percentage and just two home runs. The lack of power from Middlebrooks is especially concerning, as that was largely his calling card up until this season.
Middlebrooks feels like another one of Boston's young players, but he turns 26 next week, and we now have over a full season's worth of plate appearances telling us he's not worthy of a starting role. In 839 career PA, Middlebrooks' line is .239/.285/.421, and he hasn't done anything particularly inspiring since 2012.
On Wednesday, ESPNBoston.com's Gordon Edes reported that the Red Sox have spoken to Middlebrooks about playing winter ball, and ESPN's Buster Olney reported that Boston won't just "give away" the Texas native:
Buster Olney @Buster_ESPN
The Red Sox would like Will Middlebrooks to play in winter ball, to get turned around. They have told other teams they won't give him away.2014-9-3 16:45:27
But at this point, it's tough to justify heading into 2015 with Middlebrooks as the everyday third baseman. That doesn't mean he can't earn a spot on the roster or stay within the organization, but it does mean that the Sox should consider anything he provides to be surplus value.
If you had to handicap the race to be Boston's third baseman on opening day 2015, Holt would likely be in the lead. The 26-year-old is enjoying a breakout year at the plate, hitting .283/.344/.377 in 478 PA, many of them coming from the leadoff spot.
Unfortunately, much of Holt's success earlier this season was fueled by a high BABIP, and the subsequent regression hasn't been kind to him as of late. Since Holt's average reached its apex of .341 on June 11, he's hitting just .260/.316/.340. He's at just .236/.295/.268 since August 1, and it's a bit baffling as to why the Sox keep batting him first.
Still, Holt is an adequate defender at third, has seen the third-most games at the position for the Sox this year and shown an ability to hit MLB pitching recently. Sadly, that makes him perhaps the safest bet of any of Boston's internal third base options, and if the Sox don't address the hot corner this offseason, I'd expect to see Holt starting there next year.
The idea of letting Betts play third base seems to be gaining steam on Twitter and in comments sections around the web, and on paper it makes a good deal of sense. The Red Sox face a glut of outfielders under contract for 2015, and Betts has impressed in his most recent stint with the Red Sox, making what appears to be a natural fit.
Betts has never played third base professionally, but he was drafted as a shortstop. The Baseball Prospectus team (subscription required) gave Betts a 5+ arm before the season began, which would be playable if unspectacular at the hot corner.
But on Wednesday, Tim Britton of The Providence Journal reported that Ben Cherington doesn't see Betts as a possibility for the left side of the infield next year.
“We haven’t discussed the left side of the infield yet. I don’t expect to,” Cherington said. “I guess I can’t completely rule it out. We’ll likely focus on either one of the outfield spots or second base, and obviously on this team, second base is hopefully locked up.”
A lot could change between now and next April, of course, but it's unsurprising that the Sox wouldn't want to add yet another positional change to the plate of a player just getting his bearings at the major leagues. And so for now, we can't consider Betts a possibility at third.
Cecchini's season has been nearly as turbulent as Boston's 2014 campaign as a whole. The 23-year-old looked to be on the precipice of significant MLB playing time when the season began, and he saw his first glimmer of the majors in June. But Cecchini was mired in a terrible slump in the middle of the season, ruining his chances at seeing extensive playing time this year.
From May 1 to July 31, Cecchini hit just .220/.292/.316 over 260 PA after hitting .312/.400/.390 in April. He struck out 59 times and walked just 21 times during that span, hitting for little power to boot. Questions about his defensive proficiency, pop and ability to make adjustments plagued Cecchini all summer long.
Those questions haven't quite been answered yet, but Cecchini has gone a long way toward turning his season around as of late. He hit .333/.413/.500 in August, and while his overall line of .264/.342/.374 isn't terribly inspiring, it does show that Cecchini has the ability to battle adversity, adjust to the league and let his plus hit tool carry the day.
It's quite unlikely that Cecchini starts 2015 as the Red Sox's third baseman, but if the team doesn't address its deficiencies at the hot corner this offseason, Cecchini could see significant playing time there next year. He doesn't profile as a superstar, but he should get on base and play adequate defense, and he possesses the type of left-handed bat the Sox suddenly need to balance out their righty-heavy lineup.
Of course while it's assumed that a majority of the Red Sox's financial flexibility will go toward addressing the rotation this offseason, Boston could look to the free-agent market to plug its hole as well.
According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, Chase Headley and Pablo Sandoval are both slated to be free agents once the season ends, and either would be a more respectable choice than any of Boston's in-house options right now. Casey McGehee and Alberto Callaspo represent two lesser free-agent hot corner options, too.
The Sox could also look to get creative and either ask some free-agent shortstops to shift to third base, or they could sign a free-agent shortstop and shift Xander Bogaerts back over to third.
Jed Lowrie is having a down year, and his bat profiles better at short than at third, but he could prove to be a versatile, down-the-order switch-hitter if he heads back to Boston. J.J. Hardy would add to Boston's righty-heavy lineup, but he's a good player who would add defense and pop from the left side of the infield.
Or the Sox could really dream big and make a play for Hanley Ramirez, the 30-year-old star infielder they traded away for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell in 2006. Competition for Ramirez's services will likely prove to be stiff, and he might require the sort of mega contract the Sox have been reluctant to hand out as of late, but he's an intriguing option nonetheless.
Boston could look to trade for a third baseman, of course, but there aren't a lot of obvious fits in terms of teams that have an excess of talent at third base. Plus, once again, one would assume that pitching is more of a priority in any trade than additional help at third base would be.
In short, the Red Sox may be left best served attempting to fill their hole at third base internally. Middlebrooks hasn't shown us much of late, and Cecchini is unproven at the MLB level. But at least they possess the upside to be competent MLB starters. Hoping one of them emerges while relying on Holt in the interim will let the Red Sox allocate their resources elsewhere.
It's not a sexy solution, but given the lineup the Sox figure to construct next season, letting their triumvirate of internal candidates bat eighth or ninth while they try to solve MLB pitching may be the smartest call.
If 2014 has taught us anything, though, it's that Cherington and Co. aren't afraid to make major changes to the roster. That means Boston's third baseman of the future could come from any number of places, and watching the team attempt to patch this hole this offseason should be entertaining.