It's official: Hanley Ramirez will not be returning to the outfield. After a campaign that has seen him make a remarkable number of mistakes as costly as they were embarrassing, the Red Sox have finally seen enough, and will use the rest of the season to figure out how the combination of Betts, Bradley, and Castillo are best used going forward.
First off, it seems worth acknowledging that there's no guarantee that is the combination that will start 2016. Mookie Betts seems like a franchise cornerstone at this point, and both Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley Jr. have been excellent since they returned to the majors even while being forced to deal with inconsistent playing time thanks to the Hanley situation. But anything can happen over the course of an offseason. The most likely disruption would be the Red Sox deciding to sell high on Jackie Bradley Jr. if they don't feel confident he can repeat his 2015 success, but anything is possible.
In the (not at all unlikely) event that all three come out the other side, however, the question remains of where each of the three should play. While the Red Sox have spent much of the last month shuffling Castillo and Bradley in and out of right field while Betts stuck purely in center all three positions are apparently now in play for all three players.
Really, though, if there's six possible combinations, the reality is that only two are realistic. The one certainty seems to be that Rusney Castillo will be in left field. This is not because Castillo is bad defensively. In fact, he's quite good, having the range to cover Fenway's spacious right field with aplomb. But if Castillo is a strong defender, he's a third wheel to Betts and Bradley, who likely rank among the game's best defensive outfielders.
Really, if we were going purely on each player's ability, assigning the best defender to center as is standard, this would be an easy decision. Mookie Betts is great. Jackie Bradley Jr. is superlative. Those who have watched this team for decades more than I have called him the best glove to play for the Red Sox in their time. And when you see the ridiculous plays he makes look easy, it's not hard to believe.
But we're not just talking about a head-to-head fight here. There's a few things to consider. First, there's the fact that Fenway is no typical ballpark. Right field in Fenway is almost as challenging as center field, meaning that Bradley in right would not be nearly the waste it might be in a more normal park.
Second, there's the matter of arms. Right field has the more important and difficult throws to make, and if we're going only on arms, Bradley has an absolute cannon. No baserunner will feel safe going first-to-third on a hit to right field while Bradley is manning the position. And, if they do, they'll probably be shown the error of their ways in a hurry. Mookie Betts has a fine arm, but it's just not particularly close.
The real issue, though, lies in moving Mookie Betts around too much. The Red Sox will test him out in left and right field as the year goes on, but he's only been playing the outfield for a short time. He only took up the position in 2014, lest we forget, and while the transition has been smooth as can be, the fact of the matter is that any change has to be treated as a bit of a gamble. We have seen, for instance, Xander Bogaerts fall apart after a successful start to 2014 when he was asked to move from short to third. Not a big change, and correlation does not necessarily imply causation, but it's hard not to connect the two.
Mookie, of course, has shown the ability to make more dramatic shifts without skipping a beat. But do the Red Sox really want to mess with success? Mookie Betts looks like a star in center field. Jackie Bradley Jr.'s defense is hardly diminished by playing in right field. They have a good thing going right now. Why risk it for what is ultimately marginal value?
Maybe sometime in the not-too-distant future the Red Sox should revisit their defensive alignment. Once it's clear that Mookie Betts is comfortable not as a center fielder, but an outfielder, and that Jackie Bradley Jr. is not a one-year wonder, but a cornerstone (or, indeed, centerpiece) in Boston's outfield, it will be worth trying to optimize.