Is There Any Hope for the Red Sox’s Middle Infield?

A weakness in the middle infield has hurt Boston's playoff chances.

Imagine trading Mookie Betts. It’s become a common refrain bandied towards the Boston Red Sox, who actually did trade Mookie Betts to the Dodgers ahead of the 2020 season. It’s a move that looked bad at the time and has somehow aged even worse; Betts has put up 23.5 fWAR playing in Chavez Ravine while the players Boston received (Alex Verdugo, Connor Wong, and Jeter Downs) only provided the team with a total of 6.6 fWARonly Wong remains with the Red Sox and is a backup catcher. The Betts trade is symbolic of the 2020s era of Red Sox baseball, which has been a continuous cycle of the team’s premium talent departing and management attempting to replace those players with their Walmart-brand equivalents that never quite approximate the name-brand stars that once had their locker. As one might expect after trading away arguably the best player in baseball, it’s not been a highly successful period for the New England based franchise, which has only made one playoff appearance since winning it all in 2018 and has fired two head baseball decision-makers over that timespan. This year, however, a new development has rubbed even more salt into the wound of Betts trade: he is now a middle infielder, and the best middle infielder in baseball for that matter. As for the Red Sox, their middle infield production has been the dregs of the league.

It’s hard to overstate just how brutal Red Sox middle infielders have been so far this year. Through May 7th, Boston second basemen have had a collective .159/.193/.235 slash line, amounting to an unsightly 15 wRC+, a mark that unsurprisingly ranks as the worst in the league. Their shortstops have not been much better, with just a 66 wRC+ amongst them. If this was the Cubs and Nico Hoerner and Dansby Swanson were hitting this poorly, the stellar defense that pair provides would potentially be enough to overlook the mess at the plate. However, the Red Sox do not employ star-level defenders at these positions to make up for their offensive struggles. It’s still a little early to take too much stock of 2024 defensive metrics, but just about every defensive statistic publicly available believes the Red Sox middle infielders, particularly at short, have cost their team runs to varying degrees.

Second base had long been a beacon of stability for the Red Sox, with fan-favorite Dustin Pedroia occupying the keystone beginning in his rookie of the year campaign in 2007. But the last time Pedroia suited up in a significant way was way back in 2017, and since his departure, the Red Sox have yet to find a long-term solution at second. Likewise, for years Boston was spoiled by getting to pencil Xander Bogaerts into the lineup every day. From 2015-2022, Bogaerts was somewhere between an above-average regular and an all-star caliber player, serving as a linchpin in the lineup and capable, though not spectacular, defender at short. Bogaerts was so good for the Sox that when he opted out of his contract with the team after the 2022 season, he was poached by the Padres, who signed him to a massive 11-year, $280 million deal. The holes left by these two franchise icons have proved more difficult to fill than one may have hoped.

Knowing that Bogaerts was likely to opt out of his deal in the 2022-2023 offseason, the Red Sox made their biggest free-agent splash under former general manager Chaim Bloom and signed shortstop Trevor Story to a 6-year, $140 million contract before the 2022 season. Though Story was coming off of a down year at the time, he had showed star-level production in the seasons prior. With Bogaerts the incumbent, Story could slide over from his natural position to the keystone for one season, and in the event of Bogaerts leaving town, they would have their built-in replacement waiting in the wings. It also, in theory, gave the Sox an enviable middle infield for at least one season, something they hadn’t had in years.

While the plan may have seemed sound, it has blown up spectacularly in the Red Sox’s faces, largely due to Story’s struggles to stay on the field. After an injury-plagued first season in Boston, where his performance in the 94 games he did play was more good than great, Story suffered a UCL tear ahead of the 2023 campaign. When he came back from surgery in August, he struggled at the plate to the tune of a 58 wRC+. After a slow start to his 2024, Story again hit the shelf with an injury, this time a shoulder fracture. The injury is considered significant, and while he is optimistic for a late-season return, there is a chance he is done for the year.

With Story out, the Red Sox lack any established options in the middle infield. The common theme between the players who have made up the bulk of the playing time at second and short thus far is that they strike out a significant amount but without anything near the requisite power needed to make up for it. That’s a recipe for poor offensive production.

The most interesting character starring in the tragedy of the 2024 Red Sox middle infield is Ceddanne Rafaela. A consensus top 100 prospectand the recipient of eight-year, $50 million extension before the seasonRafaela made a name for himself in the minors for his sublime center field defense. Rafaela actually is a converted infielder, much like Betts, and has played some infield in his time in the Red Sox system, but his glove has been so superlative in centerfield that it feels like a waste having him on the dirt. However, the Red Sox outfield depth is actually quite robust, and they are desperate enough for middle infield help that Rafaela is likely their best option at short for the time being. Think of it like applying for one job at a company that you are very qualified for, but getting hired for a role in a different department at that company because the old guy just quit unexpectedly and they like you enough to think you can succeed in a somewhat unfamiliar role while they search for his replacement. You know you’re kind of being wasted in the department you got hired in, but you understand that these are suboptimal circumstances and that you need to pinch in where you can.

Though Rafaela’s calling card is his glove work in center field, he has some offensive upside. He hit well in 2023 in AA and even better in AAA, where he was young for the level to boot. Though it was somewhat inflated by the league’s high run-scoring environment, his .312/.370/.614 line is impressive in just about any context. If Rafaela is able to translate some of the pop he demonstrated in the minors and pair it with solid defense at short, he should be a starting-caliber option.

Alas, big league pitching has exposed some of Rafaela’s flaws. Between AA and AAA last season, Rafaela only walked around 5.5% of the time, and between his big league cup of coffee at the end of last year and his start to 2024, that rate has dropped to just 3.7%. An increase in strikeouts has come with it; while Rafaela only K’d around an acceptable 21% of the time in the minors last year, his big league K% is a significantly more worrisome 29.0%. The underlying metrics don’t paint a more promising picture. Rafaela’s 58.1% Swing Rate is the fifth highest in the majors, and of the top 25 qualified hitters in Swing% , his 77.1% Z-Contact Rate is easily the worst of the bunch; none of the other 25 most frequent swingers have a Z-Contact mark below 79.7%. If you’re swinging a lot but not making much contact with the pitches you swing at in the zone, offense is going to be an uphill battle. If Rafaela was clobbering the ball on contact it could potentially make up for his deficiencies in plate discipline, but he hasn’t even done that thus far, with just a 33.0% Hard Hit Rate, a mark that’s in only the 21st percentile. He has been successful at elevating the ball, making the majority of his contact in the air, which has allowed him to mash a few homers and post a respectable .163 ISO on the season. Still, that contact has not been frequent or authoritative enough to outweigh his poor plate discipline. Focussing on a position that he has not played on a full-time basis in quite a while certainly can’t be helping Rafaela’s transition to solving big league pitching.

Freest Swingers in MLB 2024**

Name Swing% Z-Contact%
Ezequiel Tovar 61.7% 79.7%
Michael Harris II 61.2% 84.1%
Harold Ramírez 59.5% 82.9%
Salvador Perez 58.8% 89.4%
Ceddanne Rafaela 58.1% 77.1%
Nick Castellanos 57.6% 83.3%
Bo Bichette 57.1% 95.1%
Elias Díaz 56.9% 86.9%
Christian Encarnacion-Strand 55.9% 86.6%
Yainer Diaz 55.7% 90.9%

** Qualified hitters through 5/7 only

Even given all of his flaws, Rafaela is still just 23 years old and would not be the first talented young player to struggle initially in the majors before figuring things out and having an excellent career. There is a fair deal more upside in Rafaela than in David Hamilton, the BoSox other primary option at shortstop in a world without Story. Hamilton is a fun player due to his top-of-the-line speed, but he has shown very little evidence that he can hit at the big-league level. He’s never raked AAA pitching and has suffered the side effects of a diet high on strikeouts and low on power in his big league playing time. Hamilton is likely a better player than his first 86 big league PAs would make him out to be, largely due to an unsustainably low .240 BABIP, but he’s more of a nice bench piece than a first or even second division starter.

Second base has been even worse than shortstop for the Red Sox so far this season, though some changes in personal give a glint of optimism for improvement. Emmanuel Valdez has gotten the majority of the plate appearance at the position thus far, but after a solid 2023, he’s hit a ghastly .157/.188/.257 on the season, a performance that recently warranted a demotion to the minors. Vaughn Grissom made his Boston debut after being reinstated from the IL last week and is likely the Sox greatest upside play at the position. Acquired this past offseason from Atlanta for Chris Sale, Grissom’s offensive track record in the minors is quite strong. He hit excellently in AAA in 2023, posting a .310/.419/.510 batting line while walking close to as much as he struck out and swiping 13 bags as a young for the level player. Grissom also performed well for the Braves when pressed into action when Ozzie Albies went down with an injury in 2022, recording a 121 wRC+in 156 PAs at a mere 21 years of age. However, despite that performance, Grissom lost out on the starting shortstop job in Braves camp to Orlando Arcia before the 2023 season and struggled in the limited big league playing time he received last year. The minor league track record shows that Grissom has some real potential to be a plus bat at second, and at only 23 years old he’s still young enough to think there’s more development yet to come. After all, despite his advantage in experience, he’s actually younger than Rafaela

The biggest concern with Grissom is that he is amongst the worst defensive infielders in the sport. At both second base and shortstop, defensive metrics have been unkind, to say the least, towards him. From 2022-2023, Grissom ranks as the 11th worst defender by FRV for middle infield work (a combination of players’ time at second and shortstop). That sounds bad, but it’s worse considering that Grissom only played 536 innings between second and short during those seasons; only one player who accrued more negative FRV than Grissom did so in fewer than 1000 innings (former Red Sox player Kiké Hernández played 870.4.) Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) doesn’t paint a much sunnier picture, with Grissom recording the 13th most negative DRS over those seasonseveryone above him played more than double the number of innings he did. The Red Sox asking Grissom to play second base instead of the more challenging shortstop, where he has been unplayable, should in theory aid him. He has also been a significant minus at second thus far though.

Vaughn Grissom Defensive Stats (2022-2023)

Metric Innings (2B) Value (2B) Innings (SS) Value (SS)
FRV 368 -4 168 -5
DRS 368 -3 168 -7


The Sox don’t have many other viable options. Zack Short was recently claimed off of waivers from the Mets, but he’s already been DFAed. Romy González and his career 61 wRC+ will take his place on the roster, but he doesn’t seem like the team’s savior. Pablo Reyes was recently DFA’d by Boston but he remains in AAA as a break glass in case of emergency option. However, he’s hit just .183/.234/.217 in 2024 and is a poor defenderan ostensibly contending team should not be relying on him for significant contributions.

That ideathat the Red Sox should be contendersis really where the problem itself lies. Boston has been decent so far this season, with a 19-17 record as of May 7th equating to a roughly 85.5 win pace over the course of a full season. They are 4.5 games out of first in the AL East and just 1.5 back of the third and final wild card spot with a whole lot of time left in the season to go on a run. But while that is a solid start, a serious playoff contender does not get below replacement-level production from both its shortstop and second base cores. Getting Grissom back is likely to improve the offense from Red Sox second basemen, but he’ll need to hit a lot to be valuable considering his defensive shortcomings. As for shortstop, Rafaela’s bat needs to come along in a hurry despite the worrisome signs in his plate discipline. If those two falter, the options around them are roughly replacement level, making it hard not to feel like Boston is punting their middle infield, and with it a chance at the playoffs.

The Red Sox need to decide what their goal is for this season. Is it to seriously contend for the postseason? If so, they should be aggressively looking for upgrades via trade. As the Luis Arraez deal last week showed, it’s never too early to search for an upgrade, and the situation in Boston feels urgent enough that the sooner a solution can be made the better. But if the Red Sox decide their goal is to focus on the development of their roster and emphasize success in 2025 and beyond, letting Grissom and Rafaela’s development play out at the big league level feels more defensible. Even so, it would still be worthwhile to upgrade the depth behind these younger players, and ideally push Rafaela back into center, where he can be a game-changer defensively. The Sox do have Marcelo Mayer, one of the premier shortstop prospects in the game, waiting in the wings, but he’s not off to a scorching start at AA and it’s no sure thing he’ll be ready to debut, or be a successful big league shortstop, this year. It’s unlikely the Red Sox middle infield remains this bad for the rest of the season as Rafael and Grissom improve, but it’s not as if magically it won’t be a weakness for the 2024 iteration team overnight. It doesn’t help that First Base might be moving into similar territory with Triston Casas out for a significant period, as a cocktail of Garrett Cooper and Dom Smith might have sounded interesting circa 2021 but feels far less tasteful today. Even upgrades to average at both second and shortstop could put this team from the fringes of the playoff chase more firmly into the conversation, it’ll be up to the internal improvement of their young players and the organization’s willingness to trade for upgrades that’ll determine that trajectory.

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