It was recently announced that the Red Sox traded for Steve Pearce in exchange for minor league infielder Santiago Espinal. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that the Blue Jays will be sending $1.66 million to Boston as part of the deal, meaning the Sox will owe Pearce just $1.5 million for the rest of the year.
As Rosenthal notes, this is important because this allows the Red Sox to stay out of the highest luxury tax threshold. If the Red Sox were to cross the $237 million mark, they would suffer the unnecessarily harsh penalty of having their first pick in next year’s draft drop ten slots. With how well the team is doing this year, that would likely drop them out of the first round entirely.
Before the Pearce trade, the Red Sox signed long time Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips to a minor league deal. Interestingly enough, it is not expected that Phillips will only play second base. Rosenthal reported that Phillips will actually be playing third base when he reports to Triple-A Pawtucket. He started 25 games there for the Braves last year.
The Pearce and Phillps acquisitions are some solid, low-risk deals to help the Red Sox’s right-handed hitting depth. Dustin Pedroia has missed almost the entire season so far, and his health going forward is a big question mark. Hanley Ramírez was cut about a month ago. Yes, the Red Sox have Mookie Betts and J.D. Martínez, two of the best hitters in baseball right now, and Xander Bogaerts is pretty good himself, but there is a drop-off in right-handed hitting after that.
Steve Pearce has been a bench player ever since his major league debut in 2007, playing mostly first base and corner outfield. He had a career year in 2014, the year the Orioles won 94 games and the AL East. He hit .293/.373/.556 and accumulated 5.9 WAR in just 102 games.
Since then, his performance has been up and down. He was a below average hitter in 2015, then had a 136 wRC+ in 2016, and then dropped below average again in 2017. Each of those three years he played fewer than 100 games. In what seems like some Giants-like even year magic, Pearce is back up to a 137 wRC+, albeit in only 26 games played due to injury.
The sample sizes with Pearce are not great, so it is hard to project him. ZiPS currently measures his true talent at .265/.333/.473, or a 112 wRC+. That will make for a fine platoon partner with Mitch Moreland. He has had an excellent season so far, hitting .290/.357/.548. That is obviously unsustainable, and he actually stopped sustaining that a month ago.
In June he has hit .273/.340/.455, which is actually pretty close to his projected true talent. That is still good but unremarkable. Pearce will serve as a fine bench player who can give Moreland, Andrew Benintendi, or Jackie Bradley Jr. a day off against a tough left-handed pitcher.
Espinal has been getting some attention this year by hitting .313/.363/.477 in High-A, but the Sox are probably not going to miss him. On the flip side, it is a decent return for a Blue Jays team that is not contending and was going to lose Pearce to free agency anyway.
Phillips has been a below-average player for a couple of seasons now, and he just turned 37. One can see why he did not garner any interest in free agency last winter. This presented the Red Sox with the perfect opportunity to improve their infield situation.
As mentioned before, Pedroia has missed almost the entire season so far, and it is not clear when he is coming back. Eduardo Núñez has gotten most of the playing time at second base, and it has not been a positive experience. He is hitting just .254/.287/.362. To make matters worse, he does not field his position well, and believe it or not, he has been one of the worst baserunners in baseball this year. Baseball Reference already has him as a full win below replacement level.
Steamer has Phillips projected at .269/.304/.387. That is not good, but it is a significant improvement over Núñez, and Phillips is likely to be better in the field and on the bases, though that is mostly because Núñez set the bar so low. At his age, it is possible that Phillips is done, but he presents a low risk option to improve a cipher in the lineup.
Phillips is likely an upgrade over Núñez, but Brock Holt appears to be the team’s best option at second base right now, even when considering platoon splits. He has had a much better season than Núñez, hitting .293/.373/.414 in 48 games played. Oddly enough, Holt has reverse splits for his career. However, as was demonstrated in research from The Book, no hitter has true-talent reverse splits. It is still probably safe to say that Holt is better against left-handed pitching than Núñez.
If I were manager Alex Cora, I would play Holt everyday at second base unless Pedroia comes back, and use Phillips in a platoon role. It is very interesting to see that Phillips is being considered for third base, too. Hopefully that does not mean that the Red Sox are planning to demote Rafael Devers.
It is no secret that Devers has disappointed at the plate this year, but he is only 21 years-old, and he is not going to improve if he gets fewer major league plate appearances. An occasional platoon against a tough lefty makes sense, but again, it would be inadvisable to constantly sit him against left-handed pitching. It would be similar to how Terry Collins treated Michael Conforto. Devers is not going to improve against lefties unless he gets those plate appearances against them. That being said, the Red Sox are a smart organization. I am optimistic they will make the right decisions.
Pearce and Phillips are not going to make drastic impacts on the Red Sox’s season, but they are low-risk acquisitions. They should help with the team’s lack of right-handed hitting depth.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.