It’s no secret the Boston Red Sox are looking to upgrade their offense. In the first year of the post-David Ortiz era, the team lacked the noticeable thump in the middle of their line-up that we’ve grown accustomed to since the turn of the century. For a team that ranked 27th in baseball last year with 168 home runs and finished near the middle of the pack in several other offensive categories, it was a clear priority of Dave Dombrowski and company this off-season to add a little bit of pop. However, as the has calendar flipped to January with MLB teams and the remaining free agents engaged in a seemingly never ending stare-down, not much has changed in terms of the middle of Boston’s line-up.
Following their playoff elimination at the hands of the eventual World Series champions, the dots between the Red Sox and top free agent bats Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez didn’t take long to connect. Earlier this month the Sox instead went another route and retained incumbent first basemen Mitch Moreland on a 2-year, $13 million dollar contract, seemingly taking them out of the race for Hosmer. They still remain a (if not the) favorite for Martinez, though Boston has reportedly offered a 5-year contract while Martinez is willing to hold out for a sixth year.
It’s obvious that Dombrowski needs to do something before opening day. The rival New York Yankees added reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton last month, and much of the discussion has been how the Red Sox can counter that move to stay atop the AL East standings. Maybe they should look no further than the team that sent Stanton to the Bronx in the first place, the Miami Marlins.
The Marlins, led by Derek Jeter and a new ownership group, have once again been stripped down to their bones. Not only did the Marlins ship out Stanton, they also traded All-Star outfielder Marcell Ozuna to the St. Louis Cardinals leaving outfielder Christian Yelich, catcher J.T. Realmuto, and newly acquired infielder Starlin Castro as the only notable names left on the team. That hasn’t stopped them from continuing to shop Yelich and Realmuto.
You can make the argument that every team would benefit to add a player like Christian Yelich. He is young, cheap, controllable through 2022, and extremely talented. The same argument can more or less be made for J.T. Realmuto as well. Only a few teams can realistically say they’re better off with the catcher they have now instead of him. Even teams with full outfields and a decent starting catcher might make sense. That is where the Red Sox come in. Would adding a talented though expensive package of Yelich and Realmuto work?
There is no clear fit in the Red Sox outfield for Christian Yelich and he is too talented to be a full-time DH. It’s obvious the Red Sox already have a great outfield. Andrew Benintendi just finished 2nd in the Rookie of the Year voting, Jackie Bradley Jr. is one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, and Mookie Betts is one year removed from finishing 2nd the MVP voting. However, there was no real fit in the Yankees outfield for Giancarlo Stanton, an above average outfielder himself, though the Bronx Bombers made the move anyway.
While free agent target J.D. Martinez himself is still a passable outfielder, his -5 DRS and -14.8 UZR/150 in 2017 suggest he is best suited in the DH role as often as possible. Yelich himself was actually worse in terms of DRS, posting a -6 mark while grading out better in terms of UZR/150 at -0.7. It must be noted that Yelich, unlike Martinez, was playing center field full time and happens to show better defensively in his career playing left field, posting 32 DRS and 4.4 UZR/150 over the course of 3,535 innings.
Whereas Martinez would ideally be a full time DH, acquiring Yelich could enable the Red Sox to employ the strategy the Yankees plan to use in 2018, rotating the four outfielders among three outfield positions and the DH spot. The Red Sox might also consider using Yelich at first base from time to time. Yelich was a first basemen when he was drafted, though he has not played the position professionally and playing first in the majors is considerably different than in high school. This is just to say first base would not be completely foreign to him and the Red Sox might consider giving him reps there with the position open long-term.
The Sox also have a pretty talented catcher already in Christian Vazquez, who is known more for his defense and leaves some to be desired with his bat. However, you would be hard pressed to find many people willing to argue that J.T. Realmuto would not be an instant upgrade over Vazquez offensively. In terms of overall value, FanGraphs pegged Realmuto at 3.6 fWAR in 2017, compared to 1.6 fWAR for Vazquez (in just 99 games it must be noted). The projections for 2018 paint a similar picture in terms of overall value, with Realmuto (2.8) nearly doubling Vazquez’s projection (1.5).
Does it move the needle?
Like I mentioned at the beginning of the article, the Red Sox weren’t THAT bad in terms of offense overall. It was home runs specifically that was their weakness, and in a league where baseballs are flying like never before that is an issue. Would acquiring Christian Yelich and J.T. Realmuto move the needle for the Red Sox in terms of fixing their biggest flaw?
We already discussed how Yelich might fit the Sox defensively. Offensively he is more of an all-around hitter than a power hitter. Power wise he has only cracked 20 homeruns once, and that was in 2016 when he set a career high with 21. In 2017, he hit 17 long balls and he projects just a tick above that number in 2018. Career, Yelich is a .290/.369/.432 hitter with 17.2 fWAR over 5 seasons.
Let’s take a look at Yelich’s career spray chart:
On the left is everything; on the right are just line drives, home runs, and fly balls. Despite being a left-handed hitter, you can see a huge portion of Yelich’s batted balls are to the opposite field. For a player that has averaged 33.5 doubles per season since he became a full-time player, Fenway Park would play right to his strengths. Would he provide the power boost the Red Sox need by himself? Probably not. However, he would add yet another above average all around hitter to a line-up full of them and have room for added production aiming for the Green Monster 81 games out of the year.
Now for the Realmuto/Vazquez debate. There is no doubt that the better offensive player is. J.T. Realmuto. He set a new career high in the power department last year, cranking out 17 homers in the Marlins balanced attack. In his three years as a full time catcher, Realmuto has set a new career high in home runs each year. Vazquez, in his first season coming close to being a full time player, set a new career high last year as well with 5 home runs. Digging into his minor league numbers he has shown signs of pop before, blasting 18 round-trippers in the 2011 minor league season. As offense is usually the last thing to come for young catchers it is not unreasonable to think Vazquez could see his numbers jump in a way similar to how Realmuto’s did.
However, for sake of this post we are going to go with the “what have you done for me lately” argument. In 2017 Realmuto posted an above average .332 wOBA compared to Vazquez’s slightly below average .318 mark. There was a similar discrepancy elsewhere, as Realmuto posted a 105 wRC+ compared to Vazquez’s 93 wRC+. Like Yelich, Realmuto, a righty, has a spray chart that would seem to fit Fenway’s dimensions well:
As you can see, while most of Realmuto’s power from the right side is pull power his batted ball profile shows he generally hits well to all fields. It is easy to envision an uptick in home runs and doubles playing in Fenway for half of his games. As the numbers suggest, it would be hard to argue that Realmuto would not be an instant upgrade to a Boston offense that is desperate for one.
When we start to compare defense is where it gets more interesting. Even though Vazquez has a significantly smaller sample size, he saved 9.9 runs with his pitch framing in 2017 which is a huge number compared to Realmuto’s 3.8 runs. Additionally Vazquez has been far more consistent in his career in terms of throwing runners out, gunning out 43% of runners in his time in the majors, compared to Realmuto’s 32%. Now advanced catching measures are an imperfect science, and stolen base percent is not always indicative of catcher’s ability, but the number gap here is big enough that it must be taken seriously. It’s not to say Realmuto is a bad catcher by any means, it is just that Vazquez is exceptional. Does the obvious offensive upgrade outweigh the defensive downgrade for Boston?
This is the fun and difficult part. Even though the Marlins traded away Stanton for mostly salary relief and didn’t seem to get market value for Ozuna, the feeling is the return would have to be much different for Yelich and/or Realmuto. Even bad rebuilding teams need familiar faces for the fans to root for. I don’t think the Marlins would entertain the idea of dealing Yelich and Realmuto, especially in the same package, without getting significant value back. As previously mentioned, Yelich is under control for just $44.5MM through 2021 with $15 million option for 2022. Realmuto is eligible for arbitration for the first time this off-season and is under control through 2020. There is no rush for the Marlins to deal these guys.
That doesn’t mean Boston shouldn’t try. But what do they have to offer? A series of trades and graduations to the majors have left the Red Sox system looking pretty dry in terms of high-end talent. LHP Jay Groome is their top prospect, though I would have to think they would make him untouchable even in a blockbuster deal such as this. Michael Chavis mashed in the minors last year, and MLB.com compares his profile to that of former Marlin Dan Uggla. I don’t think the Marlins would agree to a package with Chavis as the headliner however, and he may have to be a second or third piece in the deal to make it work.
The only real way to make a deal work might be dealing from the Red Sox major league roster. Jackie Bradley Jr. has been mentioned in trade talks this offseason, though his salary ($6.1MM) and him already being in his arbitration years make it unlikely he would make sense for the Marlins. Maybe they could get a third team involved to take on Bradley, but even Bradley would be unlikely to land the prospects the Marlins would likely seek in a trade.
The other interesting names on the Sox roster are outfielder Andrew Benintendi and infielder Rafael Devers. I find it extremely unlikely the Red Sox would entertain trading Benintendi, especially since him and Yelich have similar offensive profiles. Maybe adding Kyle Barraclough or Dan Straily on the Marlins part might make the Red Sox reconsider, but I find even that far-fetched. Devers might be the only realistic option to complete a deal.
Now I know Red Sox fans would laugh at the idea of dealing Devers. He is just 21 years old, making the league minimum, and more than held his own in his first extended stay in the majors. However, it is not impossible to see him moving across the diamond in the near future where his value would then come exclusively from his bat. Add in J.D. Martinez and a few years down the line the Red Sox will have two bat only players limiting their offensive flexibility. That didn’t stop the Red Sox all those years with David Ortiz, but it is something worth considering.
Turning Devers into two controlled up the middle players now might make sense for improving the Red Sox as a team overall. They’d get an offensive upgrade behind the plate without a noticeable drop defensively, and add an all around hitter built for Fenway that they could rotate around the outfield and DH spots. Additionally, the void left from dealing Devers could open the door for the Red Sox to potentially sign free agent third basemen Mike Moustakas, who hit 38 home runs last year and could come at a reasonable price.
Now it would certainly cost more than just Devers. However, I believe if the Red Sox put him on the table the Marlins would have to consider that they might not get a better single player in any other deal. The Marlins could have interest in first basemen Sam Travis, or some of the Red Sox lower touted players such as pitchers Tanner Houch and Alex Scherff or outfielder Cole Brannen to fill out a deal. Miami could also potentially have interest in Christian Vazquez himself. Who would blink in a straight up Devers and Vazquez for Yelich and Realmuto trade? Maybe the deal can be expanded if the Red Sox still like the versatile Martin Prado. The Marlins would surely welcome shedding his salary.
I can see the arguments brewing from both sides. I probably wouldn’t want to deal Devers if I was a Red Sox fan. I would be skeptical trading 5 years of Yelich for 6 years of Devers+ if I was a Marlins fan. On the other hand, the idea of adding Moustakas, Yelich, and Realmuto to their lineup for the same price (in terms of dollars) instead of tying up $150MM+ and roster flexibility to J.D. Martinez might make more sense than it seems for the Red Sox.