The Red Sox are a team that sees precious few positional battles in spring training. Generally, the team will have all the holes filled heading into March, with the only questions being the last man or two in the bullpen and on the bench.
The 2015 outfield has thrown us a bit of a twist, however. The holes were all filled in the offseason, same as always, but this time they were filled just a bit too far. Hanley Ramirez has left field on lock, leaving just two starting roles to share between Mookie Betts, Shane Victorino, and Rusney Castillo, to say nothing of the bench spots left for Daniel Nava, Jackie Bradley, and Allen Craig.
After Ramirez was signed and Yoenis Cespedes traded away, most guessed that the Red Sox would find someone to take Craig off their hands, start Betts and Castillo, and either send Bradley back to Triple-A while Victorino rode the bench, or find some way to trade Victorino to a team in need of an outfielder. In the time since, that scenario has grown less and less likely. Allen Craig has drawn interest from outside, but the Red Sox haven't been interested in selling low. Manager John Farrell has publicly backed Victorino, while the few games Castillo has seen this spring surrounding his oblique injury have been with the backups.
Now the general expectation is that Shane Victorino will start Opening Day in right field, while Castillo heads to Triple-A Pawtucket. It's a scenario that's ruffling more than a few feathers, with Shane Victorino being accused of egotism, and John Farrell of excessive deference to his veterans. To be frank, it's brought out an unpleasant side of some (I can't stress this enough: some) Sox fans who have gone so far as to villainize the man who, just 18 months ago, was one of the most beloved members of a World Series winning team.
Let us not forget:
That's my emotional appeal for Shane Victorino. Now let's talk baseball.
If we're going based on recent performances, both in 2014 and spring, Rusney Castillo is obviously the choice over Shane Victorino. Even if we're just ignoring contract and roster situations, an argument can certainly be made for Castillo more easily than Victorino. He's the younger of the two, without an injury history, and if you really wanted me to put odds on who was likely to be better in 2015, I'd have to favor Castillo.
But the situation is not quite that simple, and Castillo's advantage not so great as some make it out to be. Yes, Shane Victorino was terrible last year. He was also never really healthy. Granted, he was rarely healthy in 2013 either, to the point where it didn't even draw attention when he would limp back to his spot in right after chasing down a fly ball. That was just the normal state of things, which gives you an idea of just how bad things had to be to keep him off the field as often as it did in 2014.
But it's not like Victorino can't bounce back from rough years. Lest we forget, the Red Sox signed him coming off a 2012 season that saw him hit .255/.321/.383 with the Phillies and Dodgers. Victorino's career is one of hills and valleys, and pretending that this latest one, even if it is the deepest, is a complete game changer before he has the chance to prove otherwise in 2015 is silly.
And if he does bounce back, this is a player who's averaged something like 3.5 WAR per season over the course of his nine years as a Major League regular. Castillo's 2014 performance may have been on pace for 4 times that, but it also came in 10 games. If you're really expecting better than 3.5 wins out of Castillo, then your optimism is commendable, but probably not really justified given that, again, he's played all of 10 games in the majors and projecting that out of any player who wasn't proven themselves at the highest level is questionable at best.
So we're not in a situation where, even if gambling on Victorino pays off, we're still not actually getting anything over what we'd see out of Castillo. That in its own right makes Victorino a legitimate choice, if it does not really prove he's a better one than Castillo. For that, we have to look at the roster.
As is, if we assume Hanley and Mookie starting in left and center with Ryan Hanigan and Brock Holt taking up two bench spots, the Red Sox have three roster spots left for:
- Shane Victorino
- Rusney Castillo
- Jackie Bradley Jr.
- Daniel Nava
- Allen Craig
Daniel Nava is out of options, and is guaranteed to be claimed off of waivers if the Red Sox try to sneak him through. Allen Craig can technically be optioned, and would only end up being exposed to the optional assignment waivers that rarely end in a claim, but given that Craig is A) not the sort of player who typically winds up on those waivers and B) not likely to be terribly happy about being demoted, it's a bit of a stretch to just assume the Red Sox can hide him away in Triple-A.
No, of the three, it's Jackie Bradley Jr. and Rusney Castillo who can be stored away in the minor leagues. And given the level of talent involved here--we're not talking about Quadruple-A roster filler--the Red Sox are likely to try to hold onto as many players as they can. That means Bradley and Castillo to the minors, and a bench which is frankly lacking in great defensive outfielders even while two of them play in Pawtucket.
Why would they take that hit? Because it's not going to take long for them to figure out where to go from there. If Shane Victorino is unhealthy or looks like he might be done, it's not going to take the Red Sox half a year to notice. If they need Castillo, he'll still be there. But if they go with Castillo and end up needing Nava for LHH duties, Craig to fill in at first or DH, or Shane to play the outfield when someone else gets hurt, one of those three will be gone.
Castillo, unfortunately, is just the victim of circumstance here. It's not that he's done anything or been deficient in some way to earn his spot in Triple-A. Hell, if spring performances were really something to put stock in, Victorino would have played himself out of a roster spot by now. But for the Red Sox, this is the safe path. They're giving up some quality right out the gate so that they can make their roster decisions when they've got at least a few weeks' worth of information from the regular season. That will also give other teams time to develop needs for Boston's excess players.
What won't happen is Shane Victorino taking up a roster spot, and producing nothing while Castillo tears up Triple-A. If Victorino is bad, the Red Sox will make the switch. If he's good, who's going to complain? Let's stop making such a big deal over a few weeks at the beginning of the season. It's not worth all the angst, and it's certainly not worth demonizing a fan favorite like Shane Victorino.