We are currently, as this is being written, starting up the week before Thanksgiving and we still don’t really have any idea what the Red Sox are thinking about this winter. That’s fine, of course. They’d be dumb to blurt out their plans just to appease little ol’ me. But it’s been slow-moving for the entire league so we haven’t even really gotten any sort of glimpse as to what they’re thinking. We do, of course, have some basic ideas. For example, we’re pretty damn sure they are going to look to upgrade their pitching staff in some way, shape or form. That, we assume, means adding talent both for the rotation and the bullpen.
That said, the portion of the roster with the most mystery, at least to me, is in the outfield. The Red Sox have a glaring hole out there with Jackie Bradley Jr. becoming a free agent. As things stand now, they have starters in Andrew Benintendi and Alex Verdugo, and then a whole lot of uncertainty. And yet, there are a number of different paths they can take to address this issue. Today I’m going to quickly look at the pros and cons of each of the five basic paths I see available to them in order to try, presented in order of complexity.
The least complex answer to this question is simply to do nothing. As John Mulaney once said, percentage-wise it is 100 percent easier to do nothing than to do something. The pros here are pretty sparse, but the big one would be that resources presumably being set aside to address this particular issue could then be redirected elsewhere, most likely to the pitching staff. So, essentially, robbing Peter to pay Paul. This course of action requires a ton of faith in Jarren Duran being ready sooner than later, but if you do feel that way this would also keep a spot for him open in the middle of the year to come right in and impact.
The cons here are pretty simple: It’s the worst possible outfield situation of all options. Again, this could theoretically lead to the best possible pitching situation, but to start the year they’d be looking at either J.D. Martinez playing in the outfield every day or going with guys like Yairo Muñoz and/or Michael Chavis getting a bunch of time in left field, and that’s with everyone healthy. None of that is to even mention Andrew Benintendi in center field, which is a situation we’ll get to in a bit. Let’s just say about this entire course of action that there’s a reason basically everyone assumes something will be done here.
Add a center fielder
This is slightly more complicated than doing nothing, but not all that much. This course of action requires simply identifying and acquiring a player you like and placing them in the empty spot on the depth chart. Not too complex. The pros here can change a bit depending on who exactly the center field is, but just generally speaking this would almost certainly result in the best possible defensive outfield assuming they don’t sign, like, Michael Brantley for center field. If we pencil in an average-or-better center fielder, then you have that flanked on either side with Benintendi and Verdugo each in their best, most natural position. You also get to keep Martinez as a DH most days and allow Chavis and Muñoz to serve in their more valuable role of utility players.
The downside here is that there simply aren’t all that many palatable center field options. That’s not to say this isn’t a real possibility, because it is, but they only have a few real chances to do it. George Springer is the top free agent, but are they really willing to give up that money, not to mention a draft pick, on a bat when their pitching looks like it does? Similarly, would they be willing to part with what it takes in terms of prospects in a trade to get a Starling Marte? After that tier, there’s a reunion with Bradley, which makes a ton of sense but other teams will be interested as well. If they miss out there then all of a sudden they’re looking at a Kevin Pillar-type every day. It’s not a total disaster and the defense would be good, but it’s certainly not ideal.
Add a left fielder
Now we’re at the point where we’re moving around multiple pieces to make it work. In this scenario, they’d add a left fielder and move Benintendi over to center field, a spot where he’s played a bit in the majors and played throughout his minor-league career. The pro here is that it’s just much easier to find a left fielder. I think you can live with Marcell Ozuna out there, even though many see him as more of a DH. The aforementioned Brantley would be a great addition here. That’s not to mention guys like Job Pederson, Jurickson Profar, Robbie Grossman, and many other in that two-to-four win type tier as well as players who could be available in trade.
The downside here is that this likely is the worst defensive alignment that could be produced this winter. I alluded to Benintendi in center field above, and that’s just because it hasn’t looked good when we’ve seen it. To be fair, I think he’s a bit better in left field than some give him, though not all metrics agree. Outs Above Average, from Statcast, in particular paint him in a rough light. In center field, though, the other metrics also agree that he has been a negative, and especially in a weird outfield like Fenway he could get exposed. This path would involve giving up some of that defense for an easier path to add offense, and givng up run prevention for run scoring is a tough sell given the construction of the roster.
Add a right fielder
This is the one that I think I’ve seen suggested the least, but it does make some sense. The sell here would be two-fold and basically has to be done in comparison to the previous path. One is that it is similarly easier to find a right fielder than a center fielder, as we discussed with left field. Two is that Verdugo is a better defensive outfielder than Benintendi, so the overall downgrade in run prevention wouldn’t be as great.
The issue is that it’s not quite as easy to find a right fielder compared to finding a left fielder, and that’s particularly true for the Red Sox. We hear this front office talk about right field defense at Fenway very often and because of the giant right field at home with bizarre angles, they look for what is essentially a second center fielder. So if they can find a plus defensive right fielder? Fantastic. But that’s a whole lot easier said than done.
Add multiple outfielders
This is the most complicated path for them to take, but it could also open up the best possible team at the end of it. There are a few ways for this to potentially play out, but the most likely would appear to be some sort of trade involving Benintendi. Martinez is possible too and I suppose theoretically Verdugo isn’t untouchable, though probably not all that far off. Either way, they would be able to add a defensive center fielder while also being able to add to the offense with an Ozuna/Brantley/Pederson type signing. It’s the way of having their cake and eating it too.
The issue is that this isn’t a video game and you can’t just hit a button and make it so a trade works out. It’s hard to move these pieces around, particularly in the case of Benintendi whose value is so up in the air right now and can be perceived in many different ways. On top of that, you’d also be throwing even more resources at shoring up the outfield, when again the pitching is the priority. There’s a chance the theoretical trade could bring back some pitching to alleviate that concern, but that just makes it even more complicated if you’re searching for a specific return.
At the end of the day, I think the best possible situation would involve that last path where they can add a couple of players, though I am not comfortable banking on being able to get a palatable deal done for Benintendi. My suspicion is that they would like to just add a center fielder and keep everyone in place, but my guess is that when the dust settles that market just didn’t work out for them and they end up with Benintendi in center with a new left fielder to start the season. I’m not wild about the possibility, but it’s how I see things playing out.