Sandy Leon was one of the more remarkable stories last season. As Jeff chronicled back in August, Leon took over for the Sox when they really needed a hero. He was that hero, at least for a brief time. He was nothing if not fresh — although that was mostly the result of not having played much at the major-league level previously. Now, he might be one of the most important members of the 2017 Red Sox team.
There are a couple of reasons Leon has become so important. The first and most important is that he has one of the highest (if not the highest) betas on his probable outcomes this season. Is Leon the guy who ran a 158 wRC+ from June to August, or the guy who ran a 44 wRC+ in September (and a 53 wRC+ over the first 107 plate appearances of his career, from 2012 to 2014)? The consensus seems to be something in between, but toward the lower end of that range. ZiPS has him pegged for a 78 wRC+; Steamer, a 74 wRC+ mark. Our depth charts split the difference at 76. The FANS projections are usually wildly optimistic, and that can be useful for players who have odd or small samples or some other manner of extenuating circumstance that might throw off those mean old algorithms. But even the FANS aren’t that optimistic: they have Leon down for just an 80 wRC+.
On the other hand, Leon told Evan Drellich of the Boston Herald recently that when he was signed as a professional, he was signed “because I could hit.” He said that defense was the thing on which he needed to work the most. It’s probably fair to say that, when he was signed, he needed to work on everything. Neither Baseball America nor John Sickels placed Leon among their top-10 Nationals prospect for 2008 — Sickels didn’t have him in his top 20. (Leon signed in 2007, but after both had compiled their Washington lists.) The same was true for the 2009 lists, and by that time, Derek Norris and Adrian Nieto were popping up on the Nats’ lists, so we can’t say that Leon was even the most highly rated catcher in the system.
Still, 2016 wasn’t the first year that Leon was good with the lumber. In 2012, he hit well across four different destinations.
Just as in 2016, the sample size wasn’t huge, but it was encouraging. At least at the time. It didn’t hold, of course, and that’s how he came to be a member of the Red Sox organization, where has hit decently in his two stints in Triple-A (101 wRC+ in 2015, 87 in 2016). Now that he’s done it again, we’re left to muse on the possibility of Leon hitting well in consecutive seasons, which is something he has not yet to do in his professional career. (The 2015 season doesn’t really count toward that end. While he hit well enough with Pawtucket, he ran just a 13 wRC+ in 128 PA for Boston. Again, this is why we were all surprised last season.)
If Leon were to hit well again, it would be a pretty big boon for Boston. Even with just a 76 wRC+ and .293 wOBA forecasted in our depth charts, Leon grades out as being worth 1.3 WAR in roughly half a season of playing time. This puts the Red Sox catching corps in the middle of the pack. If he hits like he did last June-August, the Sox could creep toward or into the top 10 overall. Eliminating one of the team’s three offensive question marks/black holes (first and third base being the other two) would go a long way to stabilizing things. It would allow manager John Farrell to use his 13th position-player roster spot however he chose or needed to.
This is a key element, because the Sox don’t have a lot of wiggle room on the bench. Since they probably are going to be platooning at third base with Pablo Sandoval and Brock Holt, their true bench spots are basically just fourth outfielder (Chris Young) and utility infielder (Marco Hernandez or Josh Rutledge). If Leon doesn’t hit, how long will be it be before the team has to call up Blake Swihart to act as a third catcher and bench bat? And if they need to do that, then they’ll really be walking the tightrope — any injury to an infielder would leave the team perilously thin. That thinness might force the team to expose Leon or Christian Vazquez to waivers, as both are out of options. Or instead of moving on to Swihart, they could just live with subpar offense from Leon and Vazquez. If Mitch Moreland and Pablo Sandoval are also hitting poorly, though, that will be harder to swallow.
In other words, there’s no easy answer for Boston if Sandy Leon doesn’t hit well. And chances are, he won’t. But given the flashes of brilliance he’s shown in the past, there’s a modicum of a reason to hope he can turn opposing pitchers out once again. But if that hope fades and reality sets in, it will likely mark the beginning of a less-than-ideal chain reaction in Boston.