When I researched Franchy Cordero after the Red Sox acquired him in the Andrew Benintendi trade in February, I immediately thought of the ill-fated 2006 trade that brought Wily Mo Pena to Boston. The trades themselves weren’t that similar. Cordero headlined a package of mid-tier prospects and PTBNL’s the Sox got when they gave up on Benny. The ’06 trade materialized from the Sox’ overcrowded rotation. Bronson Arroyo became the odd man out in their pursuit of outfield depth. But the player profiles and projections bear resemblance: two hulking Dominican power-hitting prospects brought in as fourth outfielders to develop their raw talent (AKA, learn to stop striking out so much) and hopefully grow into everyday starters while under team control for the next few years.
Franchy is 26 years old, Wily Mo was 24 when he joined. Each struck out in 32-35% of their pre-Sox plate appearances but possessed otherworldly power and super fun names that could easily pave their way to being fan favorites. So how much should we worry about Cordero’s miserable start to this season with the 20/20 hindsight of Pena?
Over the first month of 2021, Cordero has struck out in 23 of his 49 plate appearances (47%!). He has nine hits, only two of them going for extra bases, both doubles. His batting average sits exactly at the Mendoza Line. With only four walks, an existing concern in his young career, his on-base percentage is an abysmal .265. He looks completely overmatched at the plate. The raw power that made him an enticing Padres prospect a few years ago is nowhere to be seen.
In fairness, this isn’t totally unexpected. Thanks to a rash of injuries, Franchy Cordero appeared in 27 games the last two seasons, and 97 from his 2017 call-up through the end of 2020. Contrast that with Pena who, despite being two years younger when acquired, had already appeared in 302 games over four seasons and was two years removed from blasting 26 homers in 110 games as a 22-year-old. Despite similar plate discipline issues, Pena had had more opportunity to showcase his power in the Majors than Cordero.
Possibly helped by the extra experience, Pena started his Sox career on a better foot. Through the first 23 team games of 2006 (same as the Sox have played through April 27 this year), Pena notched 10 hits in 44 plate appearances, including four doubles and two home runs, good for a .256/.341/.513 slash line with 16 strikeouts. This decent start, paired with injuries to Coco Crisp and Trot Nixon, led to more playing time. This resulted in his best overall season as a pro (.301/.349/.489 with 11 home runs in 84 games).
In theory, Franchy Cordero could show the same progress with more experience over the next couple years. During Alex Cora’s first season as Sox skipper in 2018, he was renowned for his ability to get his platoon players the exact amount of playing time needed to stay fresh and consistent. Many attributed this ability to his own playing career as a backup infielder. If he can do the same with Cordero, and hitting coach Tim Hyers can replicate the success he’s had with hitters like Rafael Devers and Christian Vazquez, there’s a path to improvement for Cordero. But can the Sox afford to wait around for it?
How Long Can the Sox Wait?
Cora and Sox boss Chaim Bloom want to restock the farm system after Dealin’ Dave Dombrowski cleaned house in return for the 2018 championship run. They expected to have patience with Cordero, understanding his need for more at-bats to sort himself out. However, that was before the Sox’ unexpectedly torrid start this season. What happens if the Sox still look like contenders in July and Cordero hasn’t improved fast enough? Do they stash him in the minors and hope he gets enough quality at-bats to warrant a September call-up? If he’s made some progress, but not enough, do they flip him for a player who can contribute this year? Cordero turns 27 in September, the age that baseball conventional wisdom pinpoints as a hitter’s peak. How much longer will they consider him a work in progress?
Remember Wily Mo…
Finally, is Wily Mo Pena as fresh in their minds as he is in mine? Remember how Pena’s first Sox season was the best of his career? Spoiler alert – he regressed next season and the Sox unceremoniously dumped him midyear for a PTBNL. That PTBNL ended up being a prospect who played a total of 13 games in two seasons in Boston. Wily Mo, that missile-launching behemoth who hit .301 at age 24 in 2006, couldn’t stop striking out and was relegated to a career in the minors and Japanese leagues by 2008. He launched a short-lived comeback in 2011, appearing in 39 games for two MLB teams. He hit .204 with 7 home runs and 39 strikeouts.
It doesn’t help that Bronson Arroyo, the pitcher who the Sox traded for Wily Mo, was an All-Star his first season in Cincinnati and went on to become one of the most reliably solid back-end starters of the next decade. I’m not saying Cordero-Benintendi will rival Pena-Arroyo for worst Sox trade of the 21st century so far, and I’d love Franchy to get enough time to blossom into the slugger he can be, but recent history and his poor start don’t bode well for him. Let’s just say I won’t be surprised if he’s in a different uniform by 2022 if not sooner.
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