The Red Sox should have their corner infielders swap positions
The defensive ratings have been shaky for Devers since he entered the league in 2017. He’s been below-average in terms of defensive runs saved in each of his four seasons and has compiled -35 DRS for his career, nearly double the next-worst third baseman in the majors over that span. His -12 UZR is also the worst at the position over the last four years.
The traditional statistics aren’t any better since Devers continues to pile up errors at an alarming rate. He committed 14 errors in only 57 games during last year’s shortened season and now has 75 errors for his career, by far the most among major league third basemen since 2017.
Devers showed signs of progress in the second half of the 2019 season. While he still led the majors in errors at the position, most of those miscues came early before he stabilized. Statcast was more bullish on his defensive skills that year, rating him tied for fourth among major league third basemen with 6 Outs Above Average.
Any optimism that his glove was improving quickly faded last season when Devers showed up to summer camp looking sluggish and out of shape. His -6 DRS put him on pace to challenge the worst mark of his career over a full season and he sank to the bottom of the league at his position with -2 OAA.
A lack of depth at the hot corner might explain why the Red Sox have been sticking with Devers through his defensive lapses but that shouldn’t be an issue now that Bobby Dalbec has proven himself ready for the big leagues. Dalbec was steady at the hot corner throughout his minor league career and possesses a strong throwing arm. His talents are wasted at the less challenging position on the other side of the diamond where he’s projected to open the season.
Dalbec is clearly the superior option to handle third base but the Red Sox haven’t approached him about switching positions, according to MassLive’s Chris Cotillo. The rookie is approaching the season with a goal of remaining versatile enough to fill in anywhere the team needs him to.
"“They want me to be versatile so I’m going to get my reps in at first and still stay smooth and clean over at third,” said Dalbec. “I’ll try to take some fly balls because you never know if it happens. I think versatility is obviously huge.”"
Dalbec should stay sharp at third in case Devers struggles in the field during spring training. Alex Cora may want a crack at helping Devers recapture the encouraging improvement he showed at the end of his last stint as manager but there’s a limit to how patient he can be. The Red Sox can’t afford to keep Devers at third base if he continues to be a butcher with the glove. Not when a viable upgrade is sharing the same infield.
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There are potential financial benefits to moving Devers over to first base since third basemen are typically more valuable. Devers will see his salary rise over the next few years through the arbitration process but if his defensive limitations force a position change, that could work in the team’s favor in negotiations. He’s going to paid handsomely, assuming his bat returns to 2019 form, but a position change might keep the cost slightly more manageable as Devers approaches free agency in 2024.
There’s a chance that this logic is exactly why the Red Sox aren’t considering a position change. If we’ve identified that moving to first base could be detrimental to his future earnings, Devers surely realizes that as well. There have been whispers of the Red Sox being open to an extension for their star third baseman. Keeping Devers happy will be essential to locking him in long term. If Devers has shown any reluctance to move to another position, it’s best not to rock the boat by forcing the change upon him – at least not until the ink dries on that extension.
If a long-term deal isn’t on the table anytime soon then there’s little reason why he shouldn’t be moved to first base, a spot teams often plug their immobile sluggers who lack the range to play anywhere else. The designated hitter exists as the savior for the defensively challenged but that role is currently occupied by J.D. Martinez for at least another year. Devers is probably destined to be his successor so perhaps the Red Sox are simply bidding their time until the position is available.
In the meantime, a move to first base would make Devers less of a liability and taking advantage of Dalbec’s skills at the hot corner would significantly upgrade a weak defensive infield.