Top of the Order: Trevor Story’s Injury Tests Boston’s Thin Infield Depth

Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

The Red Sox trounced the Angels on Sunday to bring their record to an excellent 8-3 in the early going. But the night before, they lost shortstop Trevor Story to a significant injury that could end his season, when he subluxated his shoulder diving for a grounder. Despite his slow start (67 wRC+), things were looking up for Story. He was fully healthy and at his natural position for the first time since he joined the Red Sox; he had slid over to second upon signing with the team ahead of 2022, when Xander Bogaerts was still around, and played just 43 games last year after undergoing internal brace surgery on a torn UCL in his elbow.

Indeed, Boston entered this season optimistic that Story’s health and production would return. And after offensive anchor Justin Turner left in free agency, the Sox were relying on Story’s righty bat to balance out a heavily left-handed middle of the lineup, which features Rafael Devers, Masataka Yoshida, and Triston Casas. Without Story, that job falls mostly on Tyler O’Neill’s chiseled shoulders.

Story’s injury is the second that Boston’s middle infield will have to weather; offseason acquisition Vaughn Grissom was set to play second base, but he strained his hamstring early in spring training and isn’t expected to be back until late April at the earliest. That leaves a ragtag middle infield, with two more lefties, Enmanuel Valdez at second and David Hamilton at short, expected to see most of the playing time up the middle. Righties Pablo Reyes and Bobby Dalbec will fill in against tough lefties, though the latter is more of a corner infielder. Valdez has been anemic in his first 35 plate appearances this year — his wRC+ is -13 — but he was solid in much more extensive rookie campaign last year, with a 102 wRC+. Hamilton’s start has been the opposite story: He mashed his first homer on Sunday in his first game back up after posting a 25 wRC+ in his first 39 big league plate appearances in 2023.

Both are decent role players and average-ish hitters (Hamilton is a 50-grade hitter, Valdez 45), with Hamilton also possessing blazing speed. But even when Grissom comes back, at least one of them will have to be a bit more than that somewhere on the middle infield. More importantly, O’Neill needs to keep hitting something like he is (I don’t think he’ll keep up his 73-homer pace), and Yoshida needs to get going.

Unlike the Red Sox, the Nationals are doing what was generally expected of them: playing .333 ball. What does intrigue me, though, is how the defense has been aligned.

Despite keeping Victor Robles around instead of non-tendering him, he was relegated to the bench to start the year, only picking up a couple of starts (one against a lefty, and one with Jesse Winker out due to illness) before hitting the IL after suffering a hamstring injury in that second game. Instead, the Nationals not only rostered two lefty-hitting, outfield-playing non-roster invitees in Winker and Eddie Rosario, but they’re starting them both — with Rosario in center!

Rosario is 32, not fleet of foot (13th-percentile sprint speed), and not a very good outfielder; he was solid last year in left field but graded out negatively there in 2022, and of course center requires covering more ground. Even with Robles hurt and Jacob Young (who profiles more as a fourth outfielder-type) on the roster in his stead, playing Rosario up the middle doesn’t really make much sense. Offseason signee Joey Gallo is only 30, and he is more experienced and has performed better out there than Rosario has in his career — Gallo has five defensive runs saved in 463 innings patrolling center — but he has been relegated to first base entirely so far, with Joey Meneses as the regular designated hitter.

In a vacuum, I can understand why Washington wants to keep Lane Thomas in one spot; he’s the only outfielder on the roster who starts against righties and lefties alike, and his strong arm plays well in right. I can also understand, in a vacuum, wanting Meneses at DH, leaving Gallo (the only other player with extensive experience there) at first; Meneses isn’t a good first baseman! But if those decisions lead to playing an average-at-best left fielder in center field, one of the most consequential defensive positions on the diamond, they’re not the right ones.

One position switch that is paying off, though, is Spencer Steer’s multi-season willingness to keep switching positions. Ostensibly, he’s a third baseman; that’s where he played most of his innings in his first big-league action in 2022 and where he started out last year. But when Elly De La Cruz and Matt McLain came up, Steer slid across the diamond to first with Joey Votto sidelined by shoulder surgery. When Votto came back and Christian Encarnacion-Strand came up? No problem, Steer made 13 starts at second and played the outfield for the first time outside of nine innings in 2022.

All that bouncing around in 2023 didn’t affect his bat, as he finished sixth in Rookie of the Year balloting and put up a 118 wRC+. But having a full year of experience at the plate and settling in as the full-time left fielder could have Steer really turning a corner here in 2024. His 237 wRC+ is of course unsustainable, and it’s just nine games, but he’s walking at the same rate of over 10% and striking out less. He also has 10% of last year’s barrel total (three already) in just 6% of the plate appearances.





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Werthlessmember
1 month ago

It’s like the Nationals are saying that James Wood is going to be CF soon anyway, so let’s have the other regulars play in their normal spots.

HappyFunBallmember
1 month ago
Reply to  Werthless

It’s like the Nationals priority with the pillow contract guys is to worry first about hyping their value, second about winning ball games. Gallo, Rosario, and Winker were signed to be traded at the deadline, and by gosh they’re going to get every chance to be worth it

Thatguy47
1 month ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Rebuilding teams starting pillow contract guys are so dumb IMO, especially for hitters. Chances are these guy aren’t good, and even if they are they net the team maybe a 35+ or 40 prospect. Whatever.

Better strategy IMO is going after guys w/ multiple years team control. This is how the Dodgers got Turner, Muncy, Chris Taylor, Trayce Thompson. A’s got Brent Rooker. Tigers JD Martinez. Not sure how feasible this is but if I was GM of a rebuilding team I’d just sign a ton of these guys to fill out the MLB team & AAA team and promise them all a solid 100-200 PAs of regular playing time to see if they can stick. If they suck DFA them and phase in AAA guys.

Not sure how this would play but these guys seem a way better bet than running out the Rosario’s and Gallo’s of the world for 500 PAs. Having like 6000 PAs to try out high variance players is one of the greatest advantages rebuilding teams have over contending teams who need more certainty and it’s one most teams barely take advantage of.

sadtrombonemember
1 month ago
Reply to  Thatguy47

It works for pitchers pretty well because everyone always needs pitching. Not so much for position players.

I would tend to agree with you that they would be better cycling through some guys who are blocked in other organizations or cycling through the waiver wire than signing Joey Gallo and Eddie Rosario. But it seems harder to sneak these interesting guys through.

I’m trying to think of guys who I would have wanted them to take a chance on who might actually be available. Miguel Andujar or Matt Mervis, potentially. Maybe Kameron Misner? Yonathan Perlaza?Jared Walsh would have been an interesting guy to gamble on, I guess.

cartermember
1 month ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Gallo has had a solid start to the season, and if he can maintain a 32% k rate (unlikely) he is a player teams would likely want.

Thatguy47
1 month ago
Reply to  carter

Like they wanted Mark Canha?

Gallo signed for $5mil and has been pretty bad for 2.5 years, 300 PAs of strong performance isn’t getting him anywhere more than 40 grade prospect territory which isn’t that good of a return. And he’s probably not gonna have 300 PAs of strong performance.

cartermember
1 month ago
Reply to  Thatguy47

Not disagreeing, that year he got hurt he was having an mvpesque season. Don’t think that’s possible, but if he is a 33-35% K guy that’s where he is still valuable. It’s once gets to 40 that he becomes below average

Cool Lester Smoothmember
1 month ago
Reply to  carter

That year he got hurt he was running a BABIP 114 points above his career line.

It’s a bit like when folks talk about Verdugo getting “back to his 2020,” haha – Verdugo has a 50 game run like that every season!

Cool Lester Smoothmember
1 month ago
Reply to  Thatguy47

It’s a $5m contract – a 30% chance of getting a 40 FV prospect from a contender is well worth that price.

Thatguy47
1 month ago

It’s not just the salary, it’s the opportunity cost of missing out on guys like JD Martinez, Meneses, Lane Thomas, Ryan Noda, Brent Rooker, Justin Turner, etc. Guys where if they do well they have multiple years of service time. MilbFAs, fringe prospects, waiver guys, cash considerations trades guys.

If you get several of those guys 300 PAs in place of 1 yr guys I have to imagine the returns are better than maybe a couple 40 FV prospects.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
1 month ago
Reply to  Thatguy47

Sooooooo…35 FV guys?

The answer is to do both – if you find someone you think you can fix, sign ‘em.

If you find someone you think will rebound, sign ‘em.

Is Twitter why y’all don’t understand that reality ain’t binary?

Lanidrac
1 month ago
Reply to  Thatguy47

So if they don’t stick, you wind up rushing your prospects who should still be in AAA and possibly ruining their development. After all, that’s the secondary reason why rebuilding teams sign established vets to pillow deals.

achidestermember
1 month ago
Reply to  Thatguy47

this is how the Nats ended up with Lane Thomas and Joey Meneses. They also acquired guys like Alex Call and Drew Millas.

I’d love to see the Nats turn into a dev machine, but they’ve always seemed like a scouting team. Mike Rizzo does well with his top-10 picks (Elijah Green being the exception so far), and does pretty well with free agents, but it’s so unlikely this regime could turn Muncy/Taylor/Turner/Martinez/etc. into what they became.

Thatguy47
1 month ago
Reply to  achidester

Just keep bringing more guys in. Also don’t just give guys guaranteed spots. It’s okay bringing Meneses back for another year but he shouldn’t be a full time starter. Bring multiple guys in to compete for spots. Don’t even need to maximize their value b/c it doesn’t matter. You can play Meneses at COF for instance if you really need to. Just get 13 interesting position players and aim to get them all 400 PAs, and give more or less playing time if they significantly diverge from expectations.

sadtrombonemember
1 month ago
Reply to  Werthless

Between Wood and Crews I think there’s a close-to-100% chance that they will have a center fielder they feel comfortable playing out there in a year. It’s the one thing I think they can count on.