Part one of clearing the outfield logjam was completed at the end of the Winter Meetings in dealing Yoenis Cespedes for Rick Porcello. Even with that trade, though, the Red Sox find themselves with an excess of outfielders. At the moment, Allen Craig, Shane Victorino, Hanley Ramirez, Rusney Castillo, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Daniel Nava are all outfielders, with Brock Holt even having something of a claim to the position.
Assuming they would like to see Betts and Castillo both on the Opening Day roster - and every indication is that they do - and that Bradley would probably start the year in Pawtucket, there are still six guys on a roster that can only fit five. Really, this is just a long way of saying at least one more player has got to go. Over the last week or two, rumors have started to heat up that Craig has generated some interest among multiple teams. Though the chance of him bouncing back to the batter he was in the past is enticing, Boston should not use that as a reason to hang on to him and move one of the other names.
Everyone knows that Craig was a complete disaster last year with both St. Louis and Boston. Still, taking a quick look at his numbers is useful, because it’s almost hard to believe just how bad he really was. He racked up 505 plate appearances, and in that span he hit an atrocious .215/.279/.315 which gave him a 66 OPS+. To put that into context, Grady Sizemore had a 72 OPS+ with Boston in 2014. Of course, from 2011-2013, Craig was one of the better hitters on the planet, posting a 136 OPS+ in 1296 plate appearances. Those numbers aren’t from all that long ago, making it easy to dream on a possible comeback for the first baseman and outfielder. However, there are some troubling signs from this past season that make me more skeptical that his struggles were solely based on his injured foot.
For one thing, the big righty failed to get any loft on the ball, turning over on far too many pitches. His groundball-rate jumped up to 54 percent, a rate that was higher than all but ten qualified hitters in the game, most of whom were contact/speed hitters like Ben Revere. Things got even worse on balls Craig tried to pull. After spending his career doing most of his damage on balls to left field, he fell flat on his face in this area in 2014. Of the 130 times he pulled the ball a year ago, an astonishing 77.7 percent of them stayed on the ground, with just over five percent of them qualifying as fly balls. Unsurprisingly, that led to a .046 Isolated Power on balls pulled, a mark that was the worst in baseball with a 24 point margin over the second worst (Ryan Howard). This is especially alarming since that number had been above .200 in each of the three years previous to this, though it has been trending downward.
In addition to the struggles pulling the ball and keeping it off the ground, he struggled mightily with hard throwers in 2014. Using data from Brooks Baseball found on Craig’s Baseball Prospectus player page, we can see a steep drop off in performance against pitches deemed as "hard," i.e. fastballs, cutters, sliders, etc. From 2011 through 2013, Craig performed about how you would expect a power hitter to against these pitches, posting a .195 ISO with a .382 BABIP. You want your big time hitters to hit these pitches with authority, and Craig did. However, last season those numbers dropped all the way down to a .090 ISO and a .261 BABIP. It wasn’t just weak contact on these pitches, either. Craig was struggling to catch up to anything. Take a look at these strike zone plots showing whiff percentages against hard pitches. The first is from 2011-2013, the latter is from 2014.
It wouldn't be fair to completely rule out the effect his injury had on this part of his game, though it also wouldn't be fair to put it entirely on his health issues. As with most things, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.
Of course, this isn’t to say Craig can’t bounce back. Every MLB team has access to this data (and a hell of a lot more), and they remain interested because there is still hope for him. If the Red Sox weren’t pressed for roster spots, I would have no problem with Boston banking on a bounce back if they had room for him, but they just don’t. Sure, his contract could be a bargain if he hits like he did from 2011-2013, but it could also look really bad if he continues to be a below-average hitter with little-to-no defensive value. If someone else wants to take on that risk, let them.
As far as I can tell, the decision really comes down to whether Boston should keep Craig or Victorino. Nava is tough to deal since he’s the left-handed bat off the bench, and Ramirez, Castillo and Betts certainly aren’t going anywhere for less than a star-studded return. To me, it’s an easy call to keep Victorino. While we all have high hopes for Betts and Castillo, neither has a proven track record at the MLB level, so having someone who can play both center and right field at a high level while not embarrassing himself at the plate is a huge boon.
Sure, Craig is nice insurance at first base for Mike Napoli, but so is Daniel Nava, and Travis Shaw is still hanging out in Pawtucket if they need him. It would be nice for Craig become his old self and step into the first base spot after Napoli leaves, but that’s far from a guarantee. It’s better to play out the year with Napoli, then either try to re-sign him (which they should have room for), or possibly move Ramirez or Pablo Sandoval to that spot and try to sign another outfielder. Maybe Garin Cecchini or Will Middlebrooks has a big breakout year and one of them can step into the first base hole. The point is, there are a lot of alternatives to the plan of Craig manning first base for 2016 and beyond.
Again, the Red Sox don’t have to deal Allen Craig. They have the financial muscle to hang out to him and hope he can hit like he used to. Unfortunately, they don’t also have the roster space to do it. If multiple teams are interested, that increases the chances of getting something useful back. Sure, they won’t get the frontline starter they want, but he could bring back the left-handed reliever they desperately need. Hell, even if he can bring back a high-upside lottery ticket in the minors, they’d have to think about taking it. At 30 years old, Craig isn’t a young player on his way up. His best years are likely behind him, and if last year is any indication, he could be rapidly falling from grace. He’s likely not quite that bad, but there are signs of a decaying bat to be seen. If another team is willing to take on that risk, Boston should not be hesitant in pulling the trigger.