March 28, 2017 at 10:00 AM
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When the Red Sox selected shortstop C.J. Chatham out of Florida Atlantic in the second round of last June’s draft, the questions began almost immediately about where he would play. At a lanky listed height and weight 6-foot-4, 185 pounds, Chatham looks taller and lacks the fast-twitch actions that one would expect from the prototypical major league shortstop.
But at the back fields of Fenway South during his first minor league spring training this month, Chatham showed the same actions and ability that he had in his Lowell debut that has allowed him to make his size work at short. Though he may never look as smooth as smaller, quicker shortstops, he currently projects to maintain around average defense with a plus arm. Still, while acknowledging the work ahead of him to become a major league shortstop, Chatham expressed a willingness to follow whatever plans the Red Sox organization lay out for him going forward.
“My thing is I trust the Red Sox. Whatever they want me to do, I'll do it,” the 21-year-old said. “I have complete faith in everything that they tell me, so if they want to move me eventually, they can move me. It's my job now to do as much as I can to stay at shortstop.”
Chatham, who excelled at shortstop in college such that he was named both Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in Conference USA last season, has moved around the diamond before. On his high school summer travel team—on which he played with current Red Sox minor leaguers Shaun Anderson and Nick Longhi—Chatham ceded shortstop to current Mets farmhand Luis Guillorme (he of a recent highlight reel bat catch you may have seen).
“He's a really great defensive shortstop, so I played left field,” Chatham said. “I [also] played third a lot. I've never had to play second, but I feel like I could do that. I feel like I can play anywhere.”
But while he does look more like a left fielder or third baseman if you picked him out of a lineup, Chatham can also claim advantages over smaller players in the middle infield, namely a stronger arm and the long strides that allow him to cover ground with surprising speed.
“I feel like to my right, my arm is stronger; that's one of my strong points,” he explained. “That's one thing [where] being bigger helps—being longer with the arms. That's pretty much what's unique to me because going to your right's a big test for a lot of shortstops. And that's what I feel is my strong point. Going to my left also I feel like I'm pretty good at. But I feel like being bigger helps me side to side.”
Although FAU was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament the weekend before the draft, allowing Chatham to sign with Boston nine days after being selected, his physical revealed that he had broken his thumb during an NCAA regional game against Long Beach State, the result of being hit on the hand by a pitch (which was ruled a foul ball, adding insult to injury). The injury delayed his debut by about a month, after which he rehabbed for eight games in the Gulf Coast League before joining the Short Season-A Lowell Spinners for his first game on July 30.
Over 27 games with the Spinners, Chatham batted a modest .259/.319/.426, but further examination shows that it took him time to shake off the rust and adjust to his new competition. He hit .303/.378/.530 over his final 16 games, clubbing all of his four home runs on the season. In his first 19 games, including the time spent in the GCL, he had struck out 16 times and walked just once, compared to 11 strikeouts and seven walks over his final 16 contests.
“It was a lot of college arms in [Lowell], but just the best college arms consistently,” Chatham said. “In college, you get your Friday, Saturday, Sunday games. Friday [starters] are usually good and it decreases steadily. But [in Lowell], it's like everyone's Friday guy is pitching pretty much every time. And then guys out of the bullpen were starters in college, so you see a lot of good pitching.”
In addition to the consistently tough pitching, Chatham also struggled against left-handed pitching for the first time in his life. Being a right-handed hitter, his .143/.194/.179 line in 31 plate appearances against southpaws was unusual.
“In my past, I've actually been really good against lefties,” he said. “I was trying to do too much maybe, because my batting average has been pretty high [against left-handed pitchers] in college. I felt like whenever I did see a lefty, I would try to do more than I used to get a hit off them. That's another adjustment I have to make coming into the season, which I've been doing in spring training.”
With the draft experience and introduction to pro ball behind him, Chatham is now ready for a fresh start this season. It is a welcome change to be healthy and get a full spring training heading into the season this year, but also a major challenge to face his first full professional season.
“I want to just be consistent at the plate, not give any at-bats away, just stay focused during the season,” Chatham said. “It's going to be my first full season and that's a lot of games. It's like three college seasons in one so that's why I'm going to need to stay consistent with my approach and stuff like that.”
Photo credit: C.J. Chatham by Kelly O'Connor.
Matt Huegel is managing editor for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattHuegel.