The Red Sox outfield has been a mess for most of 2014. Replacing the production of the departed Jacoby Ellsbury was going to be difficult enough as is, but then Shane Victorino missed most of the season due to injury, Jackie Bradley Jr. was abysmal offensively to the point his tremendous glove work was no longer worth the roster spot, and Daniel Nava's start to the season was poor enough that he was optioned to Triple-A for almost a month. Depth to adequately replace those players didn't exist, but in 2015, that won't be a problem. In fact, the Red Sox probably have too many outfielders for too few spots in the 2015 outfield: figuring out who belongs where -- whether it's in Boston, Pawtucket, or another organization entirely -- will be a central story line this offseason.
The Red Sox currently have seven outfielders on the 40-man roster who have a case -- varying as they might be -- to be part of the 2015 squad. Knowing just who could be traded -- and for what -- is hard to figure at this stage, but given what we know about all seven of them, we can likely narrow things down.
Victorino was arguably the Red Sox MVP in 2013, playing tremendous defense in right field while batting .294/.351/.451 en route to Boston's World Series championship. In 2014, however, Victorino only appeared in 30 games due to multiple thigh strains and eventually season-ending back surgery to repair a bulging disc in his lower back. He wasn't terrible when he was on the field, but he wasn't good, and was nowhere near what the Red Sox needed.
Photo credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Victorino has one season left on the three-year pact he signed at the 2012-2013 winter meetings, at a price tag of $13 million. That's not a terribly huge sum of money, all things considered -- a win above replacement on free agency is estimated around $7 million or so, so an average season would put Victorino at value, essentially -- so it's not entirely crazy to bench him even with a salary that sounds larger than it really is. With that in mind, the options for Victorino are essentially to make him the starting right fielder out of spring training, or to turn him into a fourth outfielder in the last year of his deal. Given he's recovering from back surgery, that's not an insult to his production: it's a good way of utilizing him to make sure he stays healthy. Victorino has visited the disabled list three times in his two years with Boston, and it's caused him to miss 87 games. He's sat out another 17 with day-to-day symptoms, and has a history of leg injuries not only during his time with the Sox, but before. Cutting him down to 300-400 plate appearances, where he can mash lefty starters and relievers while working work as a pinch-hitter, defensive replacement, and pinch-runner makes a lot of sense for both the Sox and Shanf.
If someone else gets hurt or is unproductive, Victorino would provide depth the Red Sox just didn't have in 2014, both defensively and offensively. If he once again is injured, or his back doesn't quite heal right, then the Sox aren't relying on him as heavily as they were this past season: their depth would be compromised more than their starting outfield situation if Victorino is the fourth outfielder, albeit one who gets more playing time than your standard one. He could start, especially if he's healthy, but someone with potential to significantly produce is going to get squeezed out no matter what.
You could argue that Betts hasn't spent enough time in Triple-A. It could also be argued that the thought is nonsense, considering the 21-year-old Betts batted .333/.417/.503 and struck out just 14 percent of the time in his 45 games there before coming to the majors, where he's also been successful. After 40 games and 160 plate appearances, the Sox' rookie is hitting .289/.365/.444 with, once again, strikeouts 14 percent of the time, and walks in over nine percent of his plate appearances. Things could go awry as they did for Xander Bogaerts in year two -- the 2014 season, league-wide, has been a reminder of how difficult it is for young prospects to immediately thrive in this era of data, scouting, and video. Betts is probably at the stage where whatever he needs to learn is to be learned against big-league pitching, however, so that's who he should be facing on a nightly basis.
He's newer to the outfield than all of the other options, with his 86 games in 2014 between the majors and minors making up the sum of his experience. He's shown himself more than capable, if still a bit raw, in center, and has the speed to play anywhere there is room for him in the Boston outfield. His arm isn't perfect for right, but at least his legs allow the Red Sox the luxury of a dual center fielder arrangement were he to line up there. If Betts isn't starting, he has to be back in Triple-A, as leaving him on the bench rather than in a lineup somewhere would be a waste.
Betts also represents the most significant trade piece of this entire group, given he was considered one of the top-15 or 20 prospects in the game before he was called up, has succeeded in his brief MLB time, and won't even be arbitration-eligible for a few more years. It would likely take something major for the Sox to move him, though, as those are all reasons for Boston to want to hold on to him: much of their other outfield depth is only around for 2015, and there are plenty of questions that need answering about the pieces that are in town longer than that.
We don't know much about Rusney Castillo yet, because he hasn't faced major-league pitching. I had the chance to see him play, in person, three playoff games with the Portland Sea Dogs, and he was impressive in that short time. Castillo is maybe lacking serious home run power, but there is real strength behind his contact -- the ball gets to where it's going in a hurry, and so does Castillo, who can seriously run. He scored from second on a shallow single to left field and slid home in time with ease, and moved in the outfield well while chasing down fly balls, too. While he's aggressive at the plate, he's not impatient: Castillo would simply attack the pitch he wanted when he saw it, and would sit around for as many pitches as it took to get the look he wanted. He's willing to take a walk and keep the bat on his shoulders, but not if something he can drive is offered.
Photo credit: Dennis Grombkowski
As the Red Sox signed him to a seven-year deal worth $72.5 million -- the largest ever for a Cuban defector -- it's clear their intention is to play him. Where is more of a question, though, as Castillo is a center fielder, but Boston has other options there. Regardless, he'll lock down one of the three outfield spots: that much is known, and in fact might be the only thing we know about the Red Sox' plans for 2015's outfield.
Cespedes was acquired for Jon Lester at the 2014 trade deadline because he gave the Red Sox something that is incredibly difficult to find on the open market: power. Given that, it seems like they'd want to play him in 2015, but that's not necessarily a guarantee. Cespedes will be attractive to the rest of the league for the same reason Boston wanted him, and as he's only signed through 2015 at the moment, the possibility he's dealt in another major trade exists.
That doesn't mean Boston will move him, just that there's a better bet of that than there is of, say, dealing another 2014 acquisition in Castillo, or in finding a reasonable package in return for the Victorino and his recovering back. Assuming there is no major trade, Cespedes is probably in the Boston outfield in left, with either Rusney Castillo or Mookie Betts in center, and the other of those two in right: that would leave Victorino as the fourth outfielder, and with the fifth to be determined. If Cespedes is moved, it's probably for a pitcher, which would open an outfield spot for either Victorino or one of the three remaining players available.
Jackie Bradley Jr.
It probably won't be Bradley. The talent is there, but the production has not been, as Bradley has batted just .203/.277/.290 with strikeouts 28 percent of the time in 513 career plate appearances and 156 games. That's not that many games or plate appearances, so there is time for him to get better in the long run and contribute at the major-league level, but it's difficult to envision that happening in 2015 unless he makes a major leap forward in his development at the same time all of the options in front of him are awful or unavailable.
The Red Sox can send him back down to Pawtucket to fully reset, though, or they can make him part of a trade in the hopes someone is willing to buy in on his youth, defense, and the power of a change of scenery. His glove, if nothing else, will make him a useful major-league player, but he needs to get his bat from untenable up to at least regular old bad before that can occur.
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Craig is a project whom the Red Sox are hoping returns to his productive form of the past. His 2014 has likely been marred by the fallout from a late-season foot injury in 2013, as he hasn't had a regular offseason to rest, recuperate, and work his way back: this offseason could be the one that does that for Craig, to the Sox' benefit. If so, they'd be getting a high-quality bat that they could use in the lineup, as Craig hit .312/.364/.500 for the Cardinals from 2011 through 2013.
Where is he going to play, though? Designated hitter is David Ortiz's property until he calls it quits, and first baseman Mike Napoli remains one of the Red Sox' best hitters and is under contract for 2015. He's the worst defensive outfielder of all of the available options, and his production at the plate is in question more than almost all of them, if not all. He's cheap enough, at an average annual value of $6.2 million per year, to be the backup first baseman, DH, and one of the five outfielders to see how much he has to offer over a few hundred plate appearances, but starting him is probably questionable at this stage. He can hit his way into a full-time gig for 2016, though, and he's under contract for three more years if the Sox pick up his 2018 option, so it's not as if there is a rush.
Nava is out of options, so if the Sox use Craig as one of their outfielders and make Victorino the fourth, he's likely going to be traded. The Sox can afford to let him go, given his limitations on defense -- he's really only a fit for left field, even if he can head to right when necessary -- and his inconsistency. Nava has been good since his recall, hitting .292/.364/.377, and he's an above-average hitter for his career with a 109 OPS+, but the Sox likely have better options at their disposal, especially if the 2012 and 2014 versions of Nava are closer to the truth of his abilities than the all-star-caliber 2013 iteration.
It's not impossible he sticks with the Sox, but it'll take moving another outfielder or two elsewhere since Nava can't be stashed in Triple-A: it's highly unlikely a player who has a career .361 on-base percentage after 1,400 major-league plate appearances would go unclaimed on waivers. Nava absolutely has his uses, especially since he can also fill in as a backup first baseman, but he had an uninspiring season at the wrong time.