What Exactly Are the Red Sox Going to Do in the Outfield?
You've got to wonder if the Boston Red Sox are under the mistaken impression that new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is going to allow teams to employ five outfielders as part of his new quest to increase offense throughout baseball.
While there's still more than a month to go before they have to report to spring training, it's hard to see what the Red Sox are going to do with their insane outfield depth. Last I checked, teams were still starting only three outfielders at a time, and yet Boston has no fewer than eight players who could start on most Major League teams.
There's the new free agent left fielder Hanley Ramirez, who, by the way, has never been a regular left fielder before. There's the Cuban import who signed a big-money deal last season, Rusney Castillo, itching to take the center field job away from the man who is perhaps Boston's best prospect, Mookie Betts. Oh, and defensive whiz Jackie Bradley is in the mix there, too.
You have veteran Shane Victorino, the presumed starter in right field, playing the final year of his three-year deal. There's Allen Craig, who was pretty terrible last year but is signed to a significant deal through the year 2017. Daniel Nava can play either corner position and accumulated 408 plate appearances last season doing so. And finally, there's super-sub Brock Holt, who produced far beyond what anyone was expecting last year while playing all over the diamond.
There's no doubt it's great to have a wealth of players at your disposal, but it certainly seems as if this outfield situation is untenable. Here's how seven of the eight players performed last year.
I did not include Castillo in the above table because he had just 40 plate appearances last season.
While Victorino managed only 133 plate appearances last year due to injury, he's due to earn $13 million this season, which makes him untradeable until at least the deadline. He'll be the starting right fielder.
Ramirez just signed a four-year, $88 million deal this offseason. And even though he's being asked to start a brand new position, left field, at Fenway Park, with the Green Monster behind him, he's going to be the starting left fielder.
That leaves us with center field. According to MLB.com's depth chart, Castillo is projected to be the starting center fielder over Betts. Perhaps that's because Castillo signed a seven-year, $72.5 million deal that pays him a little over $11 million in 2015, while Betts is still pre-arbitration eligible. They have Bradley third on the depth chart, despite his terrific defensive ability.
It seems clear this logjam means Nava, who hit .270/.346/.361 with an fWAR of 2.6 last season, is going to be riding the pine this year. It also means Holt will likely be a super-sub, available at virtually every position on the diamond, which is where he's best served.
And as for Craig, it's not possible he can be that bad again in 2015, right? Here's a guy who was an All-Star in 2013 and is slated to make $5.5 million this year, $9 million in '16 and $11 million in 2017. What is he going to do all day, twiddle his thumbs?
The big decision for the Red Sox is in center. Do they go with the expensive Cuban? Or do they go with the homegrown guy who put up a slash line of .291/.368/.444 with a weighted on base average (wOBA) of .361 last year, with 1.9 fWAR in just 213 plate appearances?
There is a reason Betts' name has come up in trade talks with various clubs, especially for an ace starting pitcher. The Phillies would love to pry Betts away from the Red Sox in a Cole Hamels deal, and Betts' name has surfaced in trade speculation involving two of the Nationals' aces, Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg.
The Red Sox could certainly put the 22-year-old Betts in Triple-A for 2015 and let him take over for Victorino when his contract is up in '16. Or they could keep him around in case of another injury to Victorino. But do they really want to stash Betts in the minors for a whole season? Wouldn't Boston be better served to flip Betts for a top-of-the-rotation starter?
And let's not forget Bradley, who had a horrible year at the plate last season but was one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball, second in the American League with 14 defensive runs saved. Perhaps he would start the year in the minors, in an effort to allow him to find his mojo at the plate once more. Bradley had a walk rate much better than his strikeout rate in Double and Triple-A.
Or Boston could trade Bradley somewhere. Surely there is some team willing to take a chance on the soon-to-be 25-year-old.
The smart money says the Sox start the season with a trio of Ramirez-Castillo-Victorino, with Nava and Betts the backups. Craig is likely the team's expensive backup first baseman, and Bradley seems more likely to start the season in the minors than Betts, although that could change if Mookie gets flipped.
Whatever they decide to do, there are clearly too many players for too few spots in the Red Sox outfield, and not much time to get it all sorted out before March.
I guess some problems are better to have than others.