The silver lining for Red Sox while watching Brusdar Graterol throw triple-digit fastballs for the Dodgers in the World Series this year was second base prospect Jeter Downs.
Second base, the position that the Red Sox have spent more than $60 million on in the last three years ($44 million of that going to Dustin Pedroia, who has played in nine games in that stretch), has been a disaster.
The Red Sox rank 28th in overall production at second base since the start of 2018. They’ve cycled through myriad players, six of whom have received at least 100 plate appearances in a season: Brock Holt, Ian Kinsler, Michael Chavis, Jose Peraza, Marco Hernandez and Eduardo Nunez.
Holt is the only player who has been above replacement-level. Peraza, Hernandez and Nunez have been well-below replacement level.
As the Winter Meetings continued virtually, there was little action to report, but plenty of second basemen still lingering on the market: DJ LeMahieu, Kolten Wong, Tommy La Stella and Jurickson Profar are among the options, as well as third baseman Justin Turner, who hasn’t played second base since 2015, and shortstop Marcus Semien, who last played second in 2014.
The Red Sox infamously passed on their chance to acquire Graterol from the Twins in February, when their initial three-team deal with the Dodgers included Graterol coming to Boston and Mookie Betts on his way to Los Angeles.
But after the Sox saw something they didn’t like in Graterol’s medicals, they slithered out of the deal and found a new one.
Rather than getting Graterol, who posted a 3.09 ERA in the regular season and threw 7 2/3 innings, allowing three earned runs for the Dodgers in the postseason, the Red Sox ended up with Downs, a second base prospect in the Dodgers’ system.
Ranked the 86th prospect in baseball entering the year, according to Baseball America, Downs never got a chance to showcase his skills with the minor league season canceled due to the pandemic. But the Red Sox saw him play in their alternate site at Pawtucket and came away feeling good.
“It’s a little bit of a challenge compared to a normal year,” general manager Brian O’Halloran said. “I wouldn’t want to put a timetable or guess on how close any prospect is, but certainly we’re excited to have Jeter here, and he did a nice job. We think highly of him.”
If they believe he can be the second baseman of the future as soon as this season, they’ll avoid spending on the position in free agency. But if they think he’s still a year away and intend to build a competitive roster in 2021, they need a player at the position.
Over the past three years, there have been roughly as many hits as misses on free agents at second base. By our calculations, teams have gone 5-for-12 in signing top-50 free agents at second since the start of 2018.
The Red Sox have gone 0-for-1, wasting $8 million a two-year deal for Eduardo Nunez before the 2019 season. He finished his two years with a .644 OPS and a handful of injuries, making him one of the worst players at the position in that time.
This is not uncommon for the Red Sox at second base.
In 2020, the team ranked 27th out of 30 with negative-0.8 WAR at second. Jose Peraza, who was paid $3 million as a buy-low option by Chaim Bloom, ranked 44th out of 50 big league second basemen with negative-0.3 WAR. Before the season, the Sox passed on three top-50 second baseman: Mike Moustakas, who also plays third base and signed with the Reds for $64 million over four years, posting a .799 OPS this season; Howie Kendrick, who signed with the Nationals for $6.25 million and had a .705 OPS; and Holt, who signed with the Brewers for $3.25 million and posted a .557 OPS.
The 2019 offseason is one the Sox might want back.
There were six top-50 free agents at the position, and three of them turned out to be massive hits: LeMahieu, who signed for $24 million over two years with the Yankees and posted a .922 OPS in that time; Moustakas, who had an .845 OPS on a one-year deal worth $10 million with the Brewers; and Brian Dozier, who had a .771 OPS on a one-year deal with the Nationals for $9 million. Marwin Gonzalez (Twins), Jed Lowrie (Mets) and Daniel Murphy (Rockies) were busts.
The Red Sox struggled badly once again, ranking 27th with a negative-1.9 WAR. Holt was the only decent player, posting a .771 OPS and worth 1.3 WAR while ranking 28th out of 74 second baseman that year.
In 2018, it was the same story, with the team ranking 29th with negative-2.5 WAR at second base.
This is why the position has such a spotlight on it for the Red Sox this winter. Pedroia is under contract for one more year, Chavis is the only returning second baseman and is coming off a terrible year and Downs likely still has developing to do.
LeMahieu could be the signing of the winter for the Red Sox, but there are no indications they’re pursuing him. Wong, La Stella and Profar are cheaper options, but could just as easily put the Sox back where they’ve been since 2018: one of the worst teams in baseball at the position.