The thought of Jonny Gomes as the every day left fielder is a little scarring for some. It's understandable, too: while he's not terrible against right-handed pitching, it's certainly not his strength, and his glove makes him more of a designated hitter than an outfielder most days. The thing is, though, that Gomes hasn't been signed for two years and $10 million in order to be Boston's every day left fielder. He's also not necessarily going to be the short end of a platoon, as context will allow him to make quite a few more starts than your average lefty-masher.
First, the money. Jump back in time to late January, when Cody Ross signed with the Red Sox for one year at $3 million. It was a chance for Ross to boost his own value, and he did that with the help of Fenway Park as planned. Now, in the present, Ross is currently looking for three years and $25 million, putting him in Josh Willingham territory, when the only reason his numbers even begin to look comparable is due to the influence of his most-recent home park.
Giving Gomes $5 million when he's going to accrue something like 300 plate appearances might seem like overdoing it, but he's just as likely as Ross -- if not more so -- to have a huge campaign with some help from Fenway. The Red Sox don't have any serious outfield prospects knocking on left field's door at the moment, so paying Gomes a little extra and keeping him around for a second season, rather than letting him hit free agency immediately following his first taste of Fenway as Ross did, makes a lot of sense. Plus, if there's one thing the Red Sox had plenty of this winter, it was money to get the guys they wanted. If Bryce Brentz has a huge season at Pawtucket and forces his way to the majors in 2014, then at least Gomes only cost that $5 million. This isn't the Royals -- $5 million isn't crippling for someone like Gomes, and chances are good that Brentz won't be major-league ready by the start of 2014, anyway.
As for the extra starts, it comes down to the competition. The unbalanced schedule means that the Red Sox face their fellow American League East clubs the most often, and those teams, right now, employ a significant number of left-handed starters. The Blue Jays have Mark Buehrle and Ricky Romero, and their first line of defense against injury and ineffectiveness in the rotation is southpaw J.A. Happ. The Rays feature David Price and Matt Moore. The Yankees have CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte. It depends on who ends up in the Orioles' rotation, but they might have three lefties in Wei-Yin Chen, Brian Matusz, and Zach Britton, and if they re-sign Joe Saunders, he'll either replace someone like Matusz or join him there.
Of course, the AL East isn't the only place with left-handed starters. Some of Boston's other toughest opponents also feature their share of southpaws: The Rangers have Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, and Martin Perez, the Athletics Tommy Milone and Brett Anderson, and the Angels C.J. Wilson and Jason Vargas. The Tigers might be the only of the major competitors for the playoffs that don't feature multiple left-handers -- Drew Smyly is the lone southpaw there, and he's not even in the rotation right now -- but they're likely gunning for the AL Central only anyway, so that kind of works out for the Sox.
In short, there are going to be plenty of opportunities to use Gomes -- who is a career .284/.382/.512 hitter against left-handers -- and against opponents the Red Sox are going to need to beat consistently if they want to have a chance in 2013. And in the games where a lefty isn't on the mound, they can turn to Daniel Nava to get the job done.
Nava isn't known for his power, likely because he doesn't have a ton of it. What he does possess, though, is an excellent eye, one of the better ones in the majors -- it's how, despite a season in which a wrist injury sapped what pop he did have, Nava was able to post a .352 on-base percentage and 12 percent walk rate. Prior to the cyst in his wrist, the switch-hitting Nava was at .298/.429/.489. While that's a small sample overstating what he's capable of, he's likely a better hitter than his career line of .243/.352/.379 says. (To be more precise, nearly 200 of his career 505 plate appearances came post-wrist problems.)
If so, that would make him an above-average hitter, mostly thanks to his excellent plate discipline. And, in turn, would make him at least average, if not better, in left. He'd have less power than your standard left fielder, but if his on-base percentage is hovering at .360 or higher, that's not going to matter.
If the Red Sox can limit Nava's plate appearances against lefties, that's all the better for him, and with Gomes around, they can -- Gomes can pinch-hit for Nava off the bench when lefty specialists comes in, and if he's unavailable, Nava still owns a career 13 percent walk rate against southpaws, so he's not entirely helpless. While this plan would have sounded ludicrous just a couple of years ago, when Nava was a butcher in the outfield to the point it offset his contributions at the plate, the progress he's made defensively since his initial call-up to the majors has been a surprising, but pleasant, development.
In Nava's brief career in games started by right-handed pitchers, he's hit .256/.351/.380. In Gomes' career, he's a .272/.358/.483 games started by left-handers. Now, those figures include plate appearances against relievers in those games, so a righty could have come in to spoil Gomes' day, or vice versa. Their straight-up numbers against members of the opposite handedness are even better than that, and with board on board, they might be able to get closer to those figures. Plus, now healthy, Nava might be capable of providing more than he has to this point in his career, like he did when he first came up to help spark the Red Sox offense.
A healthy Nava might be a better lead-off hitter than Jacoby Ellsbury given the on-base percentage, allowing Boston to push their center fielder further down in the lineup where, if his power returns, he could be of serious use. Even if Nava doesn't push him out of the spot in 2013, in 2014, Boston is likely going to need a new player to stick in the top slot. Figuring out what Nava can do, even if it's in a platoon with Gomes, is key, as the replacement for the lead-off gig might already be on the roster.
This might not be the ideal arrangement you've all hoped for in left, but consider the alternatives. The free agent market is exploding, and there were few viable corner outfielders on it to begin with. Acquiring someone through trade would cost Boston in prospects that are better saved for the future given they have viable alternatives on hand. Someone like Ryan Kalish hasn't shown himself ready to take over yet. Nava and Gomes represent an inexpensive duo for left, one that is likely to draw plenty of walks, hit some homers against the right opponents, and are playing the right position to give away a little defense in, especially when at home. Used correctly, this pair could quietly become one of the more productive spots in the Red Sox lineup.