Can Trevor Story help the Red Sox take the stacked AL East?

Can Trevor Story help the Red Sox take the stacked AL East?

1:37 PM ET

Seems as if everybody in baseball was working through the weekend. Starting late Friday night, the last few big dominoes in this year’s free-agent market fell in a final sprint, with Nick Castellanos landing with the Phillies, Carlos Correa stunningly signing with the Twins and, finally, the last shortstop standing, Trevor Story agreeing to a deal with the Boston Red Sox.

Story and his representatives seemed to draw inspiration from a few of the other major shortstop deals from the prolonged offseason. The basic terms of the deal — six years, $140 million, ESPN’s Jeff Passan confirms — are identical to the contract fellow free-agent shortstop Javier Baez signed with the Tigers, but the structure is different. While Baez can opt out after the second year of his deal, Story reportedly can’t do so until after his fourth. However, the Red Sox can nullify the opt-out by tacking on a seventh year to the contract, which would bring its total value up to $160 million, unless Boston decides to buy out that seventh year for $5 million. Got that?

On Saturday, in the aftermath of Correa’s deal with the Twins, the rumor mill had the Astros as the leader in the Story sweepstakes. That notion didn’t fully make sense, as it would have left Houston answering the uncomfortable question of “Why didn’t you just give that contract to Correa?” Now, the Jeremy Pena era has begun in the lineage of Houston shortstops.

There are no such questions for the Red Sox, who significantly upgrade their depth chart for the short term and cover themselves against the possible departure of long-time shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who can opt out after the 2022 season and has widely been expected to do so. Meanwhile, for now, ESPN’s Marly Rivera reports that the plan is for Story to play second base in Boston while Bogaerts will remain the regular at shortstop.

Not a bad outcome for the Red Sox, and certainly not a bad outcome for Story, who had to be getting more than a little anxious as the last elite free agent on the market, with spring training games underway and the start of the regular season looming on the horizon.

20hDavid Schoenfield

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Here’s the first grade of this analysis: F-minus. That’s not for the Red Sox, but for Story’s old team, the Colorado Rockies. From the trading of Nolan Arenado last spring, to the failure to move Story at last season’s trade deadline to the more recent and bizarre decision to give Kris Bryant a seven-year, $182 million deal (or $22 million more than the maximum value of Story’s contract), the Rockies have bungled things every step of the way. It is really quite baffling.

Now that we have that out of our system, let’s return to the happier part of the deal.

Story debuted in the majors at 23, three years older than the debut age of Bogaerts, but they are both 29 — almost precisely the same age, having been born about six weeks apart in 1992. Over the past five seasons, they rank second (Bogaerts, 22.0) and sixth (Story, 18.5) in fWAR among shortstops. They’ve gone about it in different ways, with Bogaerts providing more of his value at the plate while Story has been the better defender and more productive baserunner. Bogaerts’ offensive game has been more average/contact oriented, while Story has demonstrated more isolated power.

The first thing Story will have to prove to his discerning new fan base is that his offensive prowess is not because he’s a creature of Coors Field. To be sure, Story has put up the typical extreme home-road splits of so many Rockies hitters. For his career, his home OPS is .972, versus .752 on the road.

If you’re a Red Sox fan and that scares you, there’s a couple of things to keep in mind. First, let’s consider that .752 road OPS as Story’s floor. Last season, the aggregate OPS for second basemen was .731, so he’s still on the right side of average. Moreover, if the history of elite Coors Field hitters tells us anything, it’s that home-road splits aren’t a very good guide for what a hitter is going to do when he moves to a new club.

Arenado’s career road OPS before last season was .793. During his first season with St. Louis, it was .885. D.J. LeMahieu was at .673 before leaving Colorado after the 2018 season — since joining the Yankees, he’s been at .784 on the road. Every player is a little different, so we can’t know for sure that Story will follow the same pattern. But one thing we know (even though no one can seem to figure out why) is that the insidious thing about Coors Field isn’t just that it produces puffy numbers for hitters who call it home — it also depresses road numbers for those same hitters.

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Besides, Fenway Park isn’t exactly a terrible venue for a right-handed power hitter whose launch angle ranked 23rd among qualified batters last season. Story hits the ball hard, and that plays anywhere — especially if he can shed the problem of adjusting to the movement of pitches away from the altitude. According to Trumedia, Story has produced a contact rate of 73.8 percent during his career at Coors, but is at just 71.1 on the road. That gap is about 4 1/2 times the normal home-road disparity in contact. If he can make more consistent contact, it will pay dividends — we know what Story does when he makes contact. His WOBA on contact since the beginning of the 2018 season ranks 30th among 532 qualified players since the beginning of the 2018 season, per Statcast.

Story has consistently improved his strikeout figures over his career, so that’s heartening. His walks rates have been consistent over the years, but his whiff percentages have improved as he’s been more aggressive when it comes to attacking pitches in the zone. According to baseball-reference.com, Story swung at a career-high 80.1 percent of strikes he saw last season, while he struck out looking in a career-low 17.3 percent of plate appearances.

Yet Story did not convert that evolution of approach into better percentages in 2021, largely because of a career-low BABIP of .293. He’s at .336 for his career, so if he regresses towards that figure, the Red Sox will be very happy with their second base production.

Now, about that positional change. As mentioned, Story has put up much better defensive metrics than Bogaerts. Since Story broke into the majors in 2016, he’s been a whopping 116 defensive runs saved better than his new double play partner, per Sports Info Solutions. The gap is 57 runs saved according to Statcast. Let’s split the difference and call it 87 runs spread over 5.37 seasons, accounting for the shortened 2020 campaign. That works out to 16 runs per year. So then, are the Red Sox creating an Alex Rodgriguez/Derek Jeter situation here, where the superior defender is moving off of the more important defensive position out of deference for an established hometown star?

Maybe, but I’m good with this. For one thing, just this week Bogaerts reiterated his strong preference for staying at shortstop. Of course, teams can’t be entirely beholden to the wants of its players, but for a star-level player who has an opt-out after the season, it’s worth paying attention to.

But more than that, the Red Sox need to be sure that the Story they’re getting is the same defensive stalwart from his early career. Story was plagued by throwing issues in 2021, eventually going on the IL last May because of elbow inflammation. That surely didn’t help matters, and likely helps explain how he slipped to minus-seven outs above average last year after averaging plus-12 over the three previous seasons. Story committed a career-high 14 errors, and 11 of those were on throws. He was still at plus-9 according to defensive runs saved, and there is little reason to worry about his glove becoming a major problem. The arm? We’ll see. Perhaps a season of making the shorter throws from the keystone will be just what he needs.

One other thing about that injury worth noting: Story’s numbers at the plate sagged miserably around the time of the IL stint, so there’s another reason to believe his overall performance will rebound on that side of the ball as well given a season of full health.

With Story coming off the market, only Michael Conforto remains in the hunt for a team among Kiley McDaniel’s original top 25 free agents from last winter. Story is also the last of the ballyhooed class of six star-level shortstops who received so much attention in the years leading up to this winter’s free agency.

Shortstop contracts, 2021-22

Player
Team
Date signed
Years
Salary(AAV)

Francisco Lindor
Mets
3/31/2021
10
$341M ($34M)

Corey Seager
Rangers
12/1/21
10
$325M ($33M)

Marcus Semien
Rangers
12/1/21
5
$110M ($22M)

Javier Baez
Tigers
12/1/21
6
$140M ($23M)

Carlos Correa
Twins
3/19/22
3
$105M ($35M)

Trevor Story
Red Sox
3/20/22
6
$140M ($23M)

All six did quite well, thank you. McDaniel projected a five-year, $115 million deal for Story before free agency began, so his patience over the last few months seems to have been well rewarded.

For the Red Sox, the signing spices up what had been a very quiet offseason for a club that finished two games shy of the World Series in 2021.

In terms of immediate impact, my system bumps up the Red Sox 3.5 wins in the first run of simulations that had Story on their depth chart, bringing them up to about 88 wins on average. That translates to roughly a 15 percent bump in postseason probability, up to 62 percent, and about a 5 percent boost to win the AL East, up from 6 percent.

That large boost from Story is only in part about Boston’s depth chart at second base before the signing. Just as important, his addition should mean a much less prominent offensive role for lesser bats, such as that of defense-first center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. Enrique Hernandez now figures to play less in the infield and do the heavy lifting in center. Thus, Story helps Boston improve at two positions, and if Hernandez can play a plus centerfield, Story boosts the Sox at the plate and in the field.

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On paper, Boston still seems to be a half-tier behind the Blue Jays and Yankees in the division. And while they are now on par with the Rays, Tampa Bay tends to outperform my forecasts pretty much as a matter of routine. Still, this is a better starting point than from which the Red Sox began last season, when Boston was coming off a last-place, and that campaign nearly ended in a pennant.

According to the figures at Cots’ Contracts, Story’s contract appears to push the Red Sox over the $230 million luxury tax line. It’s close, and money can still be moved around. Less important than that is whether or not this will translate to less flexibility during the season if Boston is in contention and needs to upgrade a sore spot on the roster or to cover for an injury.

Longer term, the addition of Story stabilizes Boston’s outlook. We don’t know the future of Boston’s infield configuration. Story could move back to shortstop after Bogaerts leaves. Bogaerts could stay but move over the third base and bump Rafael Devers elsewhere. Maybe Bogaerts could be convinced to swap places with Story. Or all three players could remain fixtures where they are for years to come. The most important thing is that Boston has more high-level talent with which to work.

Signing Story is not without risk. There are the strikeouts. There are the throwing concerns. And there is the always worrisome Coors Field effect. Those risks are what keeps me from giving the Red Sox an A or an A-, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t love the move.

With all due respect to Conforto, who can be an impact player for some lucky team, Story’s deal with Boston effectively brings the free agent season to an end, and in an exciting fashion. After an offseason that felt like it would never end, Opening Day has never felt closer.

Grade: B+

Source: ESPN MLB

    

Author: Ellen Garcia