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The priority in the Red Sox outfield should be defense

They have to fill one hole, and the bat shouldn’t be the deciding factor.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Among the many decisions the Red Sox will have to make this winter is whether or not they bring Jackie Bradley Jr. back to play center field. Now, it obviously needs to be mentioned that this is not entirely up to the team. Bradley has earned the right to hit the open market, and thus should and presumably will seek out the best deal wherever he can get it. The Red Sox wanting him to come back is not, in isolation, enough to actually make it happen. This is a two-way street, after all. That said, there is a decision to be made here by the organization simply in terms of how serious they want to be in these conversations. And if they decide to opt out of talks or at least stay on the periphery, they need to decide what the other direction they’ll take is.

There are options here, even in a free agency class that doesn’t include a ton of talent at this position. The front office will need to decide how far away Jarren Duran is and how much they value him being a starter whenever he’s ready. Are they willing to block him to get the best player possible? Or will they use money that could be spent on, say, George Springer elsewhere and go with a cheaper and shorter term option. Or, alternatively, will they skip out on free agency altogether and fill the outfield hole with a trade? If so, what level of player will they trade for? Or will they just go hard after Bradley (who, to be fair, fits that cheaper, shorter term option mold)? Or will they move Andrew Benintendi or Alex Verdugo to center field and add a corner outfielder? Or will they do nothing at all? That last one seems extremely unlikely, but the point is there are multiple options on the table before even getting into the specifics.

When making these kinds of decisions you generally just look at overall value, but similar-valued players can vary wildly. With Bradley, for example, going back to 2018 he has been worth the same fWAR as Charlie Blackmon. But one (Blackmon) provides the value with the bat while the other (Bradley) does so with the glove. So once the Red Sox answer those questions above and decide which level of player they are looking for, they then can start to prioritize which types of player in that tier they want to target. And looking at the construction of this roster, there’s no doubt in my mind that defense has to be the priority here.

Alex Cora Splits With Red Sox Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Red Sox have had a very good defensive outfield for a while now, and in a sort of understated way it’s been an identity in recent years. Obviously Bradley was a big part of that, as was Mookie Betts in right field. People seem to be mixed on Benintendi in left, but consider me among those who think he is good out there. In these recent years, that overall outfield defense been an important quality, too, as the team has boasted a pitching staff with a lot of fly ball-heavy arms. As we look at things right now, it’s not as big of a concern because, well, there’s barely a pitching staff in place.

But it is exactly that fact that there is barely a pitching staff in place that makes the defensive part of the equation most important in this discussion. The Red Sox will presumably put a fair amount of work into improving the pitching this winter, but it’s very hard to see them having a good pitching staff for most of 2021. Maybe by the end when guys get healthy and things break right they could, but that’s a hypothetical conversation I am not prepared for nor interested in having today. The point is, in all likelihood the ceiling for the 2021 pitching staff will be average-on-a-good-day, and in turn it will need all the help they can get.

That’s where the defense comes in. While pitching is most of run prevention, catching the damn ball is a big part of it as well. Just ask the Astros, who are getting defense’d to death by the Rays right now in the ALCS. On the infield, the Red Sox have some issues, particularly on the left side, but it’s easier to hide infield defense in general because of shifting along with batters making more of a concerted effort to lift the ball in today’s era.

That lifting makes outfield defense all the more important, though. The good news on this front is that the Red Sox are off to a good start. As I said before, I think Benintendi is already good. Some disagree but, well, I’m writing this so it’s my job to share my belief. Statistically, it depends who you ask as Benintendi grades out well in left by Defensive Runs Saved, is fine by Ultimate Zone Rating and is bad by Outs Above Average. (For whatever it’s worth I certainly think putting him in center field at anything close to a regular basis is a bad idea. But in left, it’s a different story to me.) Defensive stats aren’t really my jam in general anyway, but in this case it’s just straight-up murky.

The good news is that with Alex Verdugo, it seems more clear-cut. In his first year at Fenway spending much of his time in a difficult right field, he looked like he could handle it and then some. He covers grounds, makes hustle catches and has a cannon for an arm. All together, with Bradley thrown in there, the Red Sox outfield was third by DRS and eighth by UZR on a rate basis last season.

Now, Bradley may not be part of it and if he does indeed end up on a different club it’s a lot easier said than done replacing his defense. But the Red Sox can at least afford to give up a little offensively to find defense. I mean, you needn’t look much further than Bradley himself. While he’s been very hot and cold on weekly and monthly bases, before this weird, shortened year he’d settled in as a below-average but not terrible hitter, usually coming in about 10 percent worse than league-average. The offense doesn’t suffer from that kind of production, because they have guys like Verdugo and Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez and even Christian Vázquez. You don’t want black holes, but you can afford below-average offense to make up for it elsewhere.

The easiest way for the Red Sox to solve this conundrum is, of course, to just bring Bradley back. But as we said up top, that’s not solely up to them. And even if they don’t, they should be looking for a similar type of player. With this lineup, they can afford to give up a little bit at the plate. The pitchers will be very thankful.