Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Red Sox' Embarrassment of Riches in the Outfield May Just Be an Embarrassment

No team has embraced the concept of "depth is a good problem to have" more than the Red Sox. Ben Cherington's motto is "sign first, ask questions later," whether it's signing Yoan Moncada to join an infield under team control for the rest of the decade or adding Hanley Ramírez to an outfield that already had six starting-caliber players. I'll admit I've drunk the Kool-Aid; the big-market team is in a great position to translate money into prospects by establishing embarrassing depth at multiple positions, then trading extremely valuable players they no longer need. Call it the Yoenis Céspedes strategy.

The infield is a problem to be tackled another year, but with the start of spring training, the auditions for the 2015 Red Sox outfield have begun. The team has eight major-league-caliber outfielders for five total roster spots (given that some can also play first base, you may be able to squeeze that to six or seven). There are obviously only three starting outfield positions, but each of the players has either been a successful starter in the past or is a prospect who has been a successful starter in the minors and is thought to be capable of the same at Fenway. The players are Ramírez, Rusney Castillo, Shane Victorino (the three likeliest starters), Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts (the two whom it's still possible to assign to the minor leagues), Daniel Nava, Allen Craig (the logical choices for the outfield bench), and Brock Holt (the possible backup outfielder who will probably occupy the roster spot for backup infielder).

It seems like, no matter in what combination the team chooses to deploy these eight players, they can't lose. It's why they were able to trade Céspedes to the Tigers and still feel like they had insurance policy after insurance policy in the outfield. But, in true Red Sox fan fashion, I'm worried. Despite all this, it remains entirely possible that the Red Sox will have a poor outfield in 2015—for while every player listed above has vast potential, none is a sure thing.

I present the pessimist's view of the Red Sox outfield:
  • Hanley Ramírez is incredible when he's on the field, but you can pretty much count on some DL time for him every year. In 2013, he played just 86 games; last year he made it up to 128. In left field, he'll also be playing a position he has never manned in his entire major-league career. The Green Monster affords even more opportunities for him to get injured, and learning a new position has been known to lead to slumps at the plate as well.
  • Rusney Castillo is supposed to be the next big thing out of Cuba, but his $72.5 million contract is more a reflection of the exploding costs of international free agents than a free-market determination that he is José Abreu's equal. There is a fierce split among scouts over whether he profiles as anything more than a fourth outfielder.
  • Shane Victorino is 34 years old. He has just one good season in the last three: 2013, when he exceeded all expectations and helped lead the Red Sox to a World Series. Those positive memories are nice, but they mask the much more plausible story of a player in decline. This is a guy whose core skill set—the things that made him valuable in his youth—has practically evaporated. The one-time switch-hitter was so incapable from the left side of the plate that he gave it up in late 2013, and he was besieged by injuries in 2014—the kind that are poison for a guy who relies on speed (hamstring) and outfield defense (back).
  • What can I say that hasn't already been said about Jackie Bradley Jr.? He's still just 24, but after two seasons with the Red Sox produced a batting line of .196/.268/.280, it's fair to wonder if he'll ever make the adjustments necessary for the majors. The Red Sox can't afford to sacrifice a starting spot just to see those kinds of numbers again, and while he's one of the best outfield defenders in baseball right now, they can't afford to devote a roster spot just to a defensive replacement either.
  • Mookie Betts is beloved in Boston after bursting onto the scene in 2014 and hitting .291/.368/.444; many will question my lumping him into the rest of the question marks in this outfield. But the reality is that he sustained those excellent rate stats for just 213 plate appearances. Before 2013 he didn't even rate among the Red Sox' top 20 prospects; this just wasn't a breakout anyone saw coming. One more solid year would convince me, but I'm just not sure he's for real yet.
  • To me, Daniel Nava is the most reliable player on this list—a testament to my on-base percentage and walk fetish. But, in truth, he's overextended as a starter, never recording more than 458 at-bats. He's best suited as a platoon player, as he hit just .159/.209/.190 against lefties in 2014.
  • Allen Craig was one of the most underrated players in baseball during his 2011–2013 run with the Cardinals, but he fell off a cliff in 2014, a decline many attribute to a nagging foot injury. This season will determine which version is for real, but it's hard to be patient with him when his suckiness is this sucky (.215/.279/.315 in 2014, and even worse after the trade to Boston).
  • Brock Holt! became a cult favorite in Boston last year mostly on the strength of one hot stretch. In fact, he rated as merely average (a 100 OPS+) over the course of the year. While his versatility in the field means he'll always have value, he's really just a complementary piece, not a solution at any one position.
In short, it's not hard to imagine a scenario where all or most of these players again fail to live up to Boston's hopes and expectations. In fact, we've already seen that scenario: it was called the 2014 season. Possibly—but hopefully not—last year showed us what happens when a team relies on throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks. Especially considering they're a big-market team with a creative GM, I find myself wishing the Red Sox would just acquire three solid outfielders and call it a day.

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