The Red Sox have needs at second base and in the outfield and could perhaps address both of those areas with one player. Per a report from Chad Jennings and Jen McCaffrey of The Athletic, the club has “considered” Whit Merrifield and contacted his representatives, though the report characterizes the talks as preliminary with nothing appearing to be imminent.
Merrifield, 35 in January, has spent the past three seasons with offense a bit below league average but providing speed and defensive versatility. Splitting that stretch between the Royals and Blue Jays, the right-handed hitter took 1,862 trips to the plate in 446 games. He hit just 32 home runs in that time and walked at a mere 6.1% clip but also limited his strikeouts to a 15.5% rate. His .268/.311/.385 batting line in that time translates to a wRC+ of 90, or 10% below league average.
But he also stole 82 bases and split his time between second base and the outfield. His work at the keystone was strongly reviewed, as he produced 5 Defensive Runs Saved, 13 Outs Above Average and a grade of 6.1 from Ultimate Zone Rating. His marks in the outfield were more mixed, but teams love versatility and the ability to passably move around the diamond will certainly be attractive.
The fit with the Red Sox is quite sensible. Earlier this week, chief baseball officer Craig Breslow spoke about the club’s needs, saying that the “ideal” second base acquisition for them would be a right-handed hitter who plays plus defense, though he suggested a trade would be more likely than a free agent signing.
Merrifield isn’t the only strong defender who hits from the right side that’s available. Amed Rosario has mostly played shortstop in his career but received decent grades at the keystone with the Dodgers in the second half of 2023. The trade market could perhaps have guys like Gleyber Torres and Ha-Seong Kim, though there hasn’t been much to suggest a trade of either is likely. Jonathan India makes some sense as a trade candidate but the Reds have downplayed his availability and he’s generally considered a poor defender. Jorge Polanco is a switch-hitter but his offense is better than his defense and his bat is better from the left side. Brandon Drury could be available if the Angels are stepping back in 2024 but it doesn’t appear as though they will. Christopher Morel could be a good fit but he still has five years of control remaining and the Cubs seem to be trying to use him to pull off a big trade for someone like Pete Alonso or Tyler Glasnow.
All that is to say that the Sox have plenty of options, but Merrifield is one that makes sense. In addition to his right-handed bat and strong second base defense, his ability to move to the outfield could be enticing to them. The Boston outfield mix, even after trading lefty Alex Verdugo, projects to have lefties Wilyer Abreu, Jarren Duran and Masataka Yoshida. The latter will possibly see significant time as designated hitter, but not everyday. Breslow also suggested this week that he would like a right-handed hitter who could play center field but also said that’s not a need. Ceddanne Rafaela hits from the right side and the report linked in the first paragraph suggests the team feels he could viably handle center field.
Merrifield isn’t really someone to be relied on for center. He has just 120 innings there over the past three years and none in 2023. But perhaps the Sox could feel comfortable with a Rafaela up the middle, with Duran playing both left field and some center, as Abreu, Yoshida and Rob Refsnyder chip in at the corners as well. That’s a group fairly light on experience, however, and could perhaps do with a veteran addition. If Merrifield were to take the second base job, it’s possible he’s eventually pushed off by middle infield prospects Nick Yorke and Marcelo Mayer, but his ability to play the outfield could still allow him to be useful to the club.
MLBTR predicted Merrifield for a two-year, $18MM deal this winter, which would easily fit onto Boston’s payroll at present. Roster Resource lists their 2024 outlay as $164MM with a competitive balance tax figure of $176MM. It’s possible the club doesn’t want to go over the $237MM base threshold for the CBT after a last place finish in the East and with a new decision maker just hired, but that could still leave something like $60MM of wiggle room if they are willing to get near the line.
The club’s priority is pitching, however, which could be why the talks with Merrifield have only been preliminary thus far. If they decide to make a splashy move or two in upgrading their staff, they might be left with little left for pursuing upgrades at second base and the outfield. But Merrifield likely won’t require a ridiculous contract so it’s possible they circle back to him later in the winter after they make their decisions on the pitching front. Merrifield was also connected to the White Sox back in October but that club has since acquire Paul DeJong, Nicky Lopez and Braden Shewmake for their middle infield.