The Red Sox have had outfield troubles this season. There's no question about that. Of the 30 major league teams, the Sox rank 25th in outfield offense with a .674 OPS (26th by wRC+ at 86), this coming only one year after the 2013 outfield proved one of the major league's best.
So what happened? Jacoby Ellsbury was good, but he's not the difference between the best and worst outfield in the league. Is it possible that, however bad this outfield may have been in the first half of 2013, the Red Sox may already have the personnel in place for a more successful 2015?
Let's move from left to right. In 2013 and 2014 alike, the Red Sox started the season intending to use a platoon of Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes for left field. In 2013, this worked like a charm. Nava hit .322/.411/.484 against right-handed pitchers, with Gomes contributing a .236/.347/.447 mark against lefties. Add in the occasional Mike Carp at bat, and the 2013 team had the third best offensive left field in the game, trailing only the Angels and Rockies, led by Mike Trout and Calos Gonzalez respectively.
In 2014, however, Daniel Nava started the season an absolute wreck. Perhaps letting the pressure get to him after some early bad luck, the outfielder who had made plate discipline his hallmark in 2013 struck out 13 times in 38 at bats from April 9 to April 21, and was sent down to Pawtucket. With Nava out of the picture, Gomes ended up playing against more right-handed pitchers than expected, leaving him with 103 plate appearances hitting .156/.243/.267 to weigh down his exceptional (.306/.403/.429) perfromance against southpaws.
Toss in the failed Grady Sizemore experiment, and you have quite the mess.
But forget the past. Right now the Red Sox have a fully functioning left field thanks to the return of Daniel Nava, who has rediscovered his approach and is hitting .330/.419/.374 in his most recent callup. Sure, the power hasn't been there just yet, but he's seeing the ball well and, given a good platoon partner, should be able to provide the Red Sox close to what he gave them in 2013. He'll need a new platoon partner if Jonny Gomes is to leave the team either in free agency or via trade, but the long end of the platoon is the hardest to fill, with lefty-mashers available relatively cheap.
Jackie Bradley Jr. may seem a bit harder to justify. After all, he's hitting just .227/.305/.311 in his second major league season, good for a 71 wRC+. Even at the bottom of the order, Bradley's bat has been conspicuously bad for much of the year, with only six qualified players in the majors providing less at the plate.
So why is he not a problem that needs solved? Does it have to do with his recent uptick in production? The .866 OPS in July? Not so much, no. Every player has hot streaks, and where Nava has some history of success to back up his streak, Bradley does not. While I certainly hope that a changed stance has led to a changed Bradley, he needs to sustain this sort of performance for more than a couple weeks to really prove that he's finding the comfort at the plate he once had in the minor leagues.
No, while the recent improvements help, it's really all about the glove. Bradley has been absolutely phenomenal in center field. Small sample size defensive statistics are always suspect, but for what it's worth, DRS has him at +12, and UZR at right about 11. The result is that even with his terrible performance at the plate, Jackie Bradley Jr. is currently on pace for about a 2.5 WAR season by both FanGraphs and BR's estimations. It's not fantastic, but it is solid, and certainly enough to warrant his continued presence when you consider his upside.
Photo Credit: Jim Rogash
That leaves us with Shane Victorino, whose situation is rather simple. When healthy, he's an easy starter. The flip side is this year with all its various trips to the disabled list and rehab setbacks. The hope is that Shane is paying the price for playing through so much in 2013 and will in turn benefit from having relatively little wear and tear on his body from 2014. There's no guarantee of that, and while it would be nice for him to give the Red Sox reason more reason to hope for a good 2015 with a big second half, nothing that he does in these last few months will overcome the upside he represents on a one-year deal.
The Red Sox could reasonably enter the 2015 season leaving their outfield intact. This is particularly true with Brock Holt and Mookie Betts in the mix with their impressive positional flexibility, each of them a better option than Grady Sizemore was. And doing so wouldn't really even be accepting mediocrity given how well a similar outfield performed in 2013 and the general upside of Jackie Bradley Jr.
That being said, this is not an outfield the Red Sox should necessarily be fighting to keep together. For being such a bad team, the 2014 Red Sox do not have that many holes to fill. They're going to be relying on improvements from young players like Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Christian Vazquez, and the aforementioned Jackie Bradley. They'll likely be trying to fill one or two rotation spots with their various young arms, even if they do manage to retain Jon Lester's services. And just about any argument that the Red Sox have nobody who can play [insert position here] can be met reasonably with "Brock Holt."
But that doesn't mean there aren't spots where they can improve. A two-win player is viable, but a team starting nine of them is likely middle-of-the-pack at best. The awkward situation the Red Sox face if they want to bring outfield help in from outside in 2015 is which reasonable option to replace. Shane Victorino is the player most likely to be an impact player next year in his own right. Daniel Nava is still under team control for a few more years. And while Jackie Bradley Jr. is the most important of the three for the team's future, he's also the one who could actually contribute quite a bit to a deal that brings said help in.
It's a plan that flies in the face of the old "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" strategy. Because as broken as Daniel Nava was in May, and as broken as Shane Victorino has been this season, there's every reason to believe they'll be ready to contribute again by 2014. But the fact of the matter is that a machine full of working cogs in Major League Baseball doesn't promise anything. The goal is not to be a wholly adequate team, but to be the best. And while it's possible for a Nava - Bradley - Victorino outfield to be a core part of the best team in baseball, particularly with help from guys like Brock Holt and Mookie Betts, it's also certainly not beyond improving.