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Sorting out the Red Sox' outfield pieces for 2016

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Remember when the Red Sox had too many outfielders to handle? Those days are long gone. Disclaimer: Yes, this features more "Hanley out of left field" talk. Proceed at your own risk.

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

At the beginning of the 2015 season, the Red Sox were facing a problem: too many good outfielders to choose from. Hanley Ramirez was in left, Mookie Betts almost certainly entrenched in center, and only one spot left for the likes of Rusney Castillo, Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, and at times Brock Holt and Allen Craig to split between them.

Four months later, the Red Sox are facing a similar issue, but with a less optimistic outlook. Hanley Ramirez is still in left field, which is arguably one of the greatest problems facing the Red Sox in the coming offseason. With Mookie Betts returning to action today (and representing the one clear positive in the whole situation), Rusney Castillo might soon be back to fighting for playing time, but this time with Jackie Bradley Jr. and--if the madness continues--Alejandro De Aza.

(In fact, let's just cut that bit out right now, so we're clear: Alejandro De Aza is a free agent, and thus not part of the conversation.)

Where at the beginning of the year the outfield logjam represented too many good choices (or so we thought), headed into 2016, the reality of the situation is that the Red Sox have more outfielders than they have spaces available, and still somehow find themselves in need of an upgrade.

Mookie Betts is safe. He faded some in July, but is clearly one of the best players on the roster right now for the Red Sox, and only likely to get better with more time. The only change the Red Sox should consider with Betts is making his contract quite a bit longer than the year-to-year plan they could pursue for five more seasons.

If anything is certain about the 2016 outfield, it's that Mookie Betts will play a part. -- Photo Credit: Mark L. Baer

Hanley Ramirez is also locked into the roster, but not to the outfield. Ben Cherington has stubbornly kept Ramirez in the outfield all season long, but the experiment is a complete and utter failure. Hanley Ramirez is the worst defender in baseball this season, and it's not close. He has cost the Red Sox an estimated 21.5 runs on defense compared to a replacement player, a full four runs worse than Gerardo Parra, who comes in second.

Distressingly enough, there is some perception that because he has improved since the beginning of the season, he has somehow turned the page in the outfield. It's true that he's not quite as bad as he was in April, but only because in April he looked like a child getting his first taste of tee-ball, only generally aware that his duty was to chase after the ball and at some point throw it somewhere in the infield. Hanley Ramirez is "better," yes, but better than historically bad does not mean acceptable. To whit, while Ramirez has leapfrogged Parra in the second half of the season, that still leaves him the second worst fielder in baseball. Say what you will about such small sample size defensive stats, the fact that they are so extremely negative and, frankly, completely in line with the eye test should be pretty convincing that entering 2016 with Hanley Ramirez in the outfield is tantamount to surrender.

That leaves Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley Jr. And, to some extent Brock Holt, I suppose, though his versatility makes finding a place for him in any given game something of a non-issue.

Bradley is coming off a monster game against the Tigers on Sunday, but even with that to his name, it's awfully difficult to envision a scenario in which the Red Sox can be comfortable going into 2016 with him as a starter. Yes, Bradley's glove is otherworldly. No, he doesn't have to hit all that much to be a reasonable baseball player. But he does have to hit some, and so far he hasn't done that in either the 605 plate appearances of his major league career or the 75 plate appearances he's seen in 2015.

Really ask yourself: what can Bradley do in the last 50 games to make himself a legitimate starting candidate for 2016? What if he hits to a .750 OPS for the rest of the way? That would still leave him with an OPS under .700 on the year, to say nothing of his career. And that's so far out of line with his career performance that it's pretty hard to imagine to begin with. The Red Sox should be playing him when possible because, well, it helps to know if there's even any signs he might someday hit, whether that's because it gives them reason to keep him, or because it gives someone else reason to trade for him. But there is simply no realistic world in which, 162 games in the book, the Red Sox can look to 2016 and be comfortable with Jackie Bradley Jr. as a major part of the plan.

That brings us to Rusney Castillo. His numbers are certainly better than Bradley's, and have been trending positively. In his most recent call-up, he's hit .333/.375/.444, and while that's not enough to completely mitigate his early-season failure, there were already excuses to be made for a player whose spring ended before it began due to injury and who was hailed as the savior of a fast-failing Red Sox team before he even stepped up to bat.

Castillo certainly seems like a flawed player, from what we've seen of him. His inability to keep the ball off the ground has been kind of unreal, and his injury excuse is not all that far off from being a clear injury problem at this point. But he's fast enough to turn a decent number of those ground balls into hits, and it's not hard to imagine him doing noticeably better in that department come 2016 if he manages a normal spring training. There's a player to be found in there, the only question is how close he is to replacement level. There's a possibility that he's barely above it, or in a whole different conversation. But unlike Bradley, he's not fighting against a significant body of evidence that shows he's well below average with the bat, and if he's not superlative with the glove in the same way Bradley is, he's certainly more than capable.

In a better world, Castillo would be in the same role he was expected to be in to start the year. The safety net or fourth outfielder behind other options, who will inevitably get an opportunity when those options struggle or get hurt. But the Red Sox don't have that luxury anymore. Jackie Bradley Jr. will not be proven to the point where he can be relied on as a starter. Hanley Ramirez has proven he's simply not viable out there. Without those options to pull from, Castillo becomes the gamble the Red Sox have to take.

But this still leaves them one down, and Manuel Margot isn't really in the ballpark of being ready yet. Yes, just months ago we were talking about how there were too many outfielders in Boston to possibly deal with, and now it's come to wondering who the team will add in the months to come. That, or the cold, depressing acceptance that the Red Sox are just going to shrug and move forward with a left field situation that will need to see Hanley Ramirez hit a full 25% better than he did in 2015 just to make his offensive contributions equal to the damage he does on defense.

I'd say I miss having too many good options, but honestly, that was never the case. It only seemed like it at the time, before the season revealed the harsh reality.