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Checking the Market: Center Field

The Red Sox need to replace a longtime presence at the position.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The offseason is officially upon us, and the Red Sox should be active. Coming off one of the worst seasons in the history of the franchise (the length of which notwithstanding), they have plenty of needs all over the roster. To get us ready for all of the possible moves that could be made over the next few months, we’re going to spent the next week looking at every portion of the roster and the available players that could be targeted both in free agency and via trade. Today, we’ll look at the centerfield market.

Where the Red Sox stand

This is one of the clearest areas of need for the Red Sox this winter, with perhaps only the rotation being a more obvious position at which they can upgrade. And to be clear, when I say upgrade I mean upgrade over what they have on their roster at this moment, not from 2020. That is an important clarification because, as I’m sure most know and as we’ll get to in just a few minutes (or less. I don’t know how quickly you read) they could simply run it back at this position.

For now, though, they are essentially empty at this spot. Jackie Bradley Jr. has been manning the position for most of the last decade, but he has hit the open market this offseason and as of a few days ago he officially came off the roster. They don’t have a natural replacement in the organization already, either. Jarren Duran could be that guy relatively soon, but late 2021 would be the best-case scenario in terms of him being ready to start at the major-league level, and even that is probably optimistic.

So that leaves the team with two choices. The first is to either bring Bradley back or find a new player on either the free agent or market. That’s the scenario we’ll be focusing the most on today. The other option would be what we discussed on Tuesday, which would be to move either Andrew Benintendi or Alex Verdugo (my preference would be the latter, but the team may disagree) to center field and target a corner outfielder. The linked post gives a look at those options, but again for today we’re going to focus on the center field options.

Top Free Agent

George Springer

This isn’t a very strong market, as will be discovered fairly quickly, but the top free agent does happen to be one of the top free agents on the board regardless of position this winter. He also was one of six free agents to have a qualifying offer extended to him, meaning a team who signs him will have to give up a top draft pick. For the Red Sox, they’d give up their second round selection. Springer is certainly deserving of having this distinction, as he has been one of the best hitters in baseball since the start of 2019. His 153 wRC+ dating back to Opening Day 2019 ranks seventh in all of baseball, one point ahead of NL MVP favorite Freddie Freeman. Throw in his great success in the postseason over his career, and you have an easy, elite free agent.

League Championship - Houston Astros v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Six Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

There are a couple of real issues with a potential signing here, though. The first is simply his connection to the 2017 Astros and their sign-stealing scheme. The Red Sox don’t seem too concerned about that connection given their presumed willingness to bring back Alex Cora, but that could cause some hesitance for some teams. Focusing more on the field, Springer is a center fielder right now but he is also 31 years old. There are legitimate concerns that he will have to move off the position after just a year or two. For the Red Sox, I think they can survive that move and the bat would still make it worth it, but those kind of defensive projections have to be part of the calculation. All told, the 2017 thing makes me wary personally, but just looking at the player it’s hard to deny him being a tremendous fit for this team.

Other Free Agents

Jackie Bradley Jr., Kevin Pillar, Cameron Maybin, Jarrod Dyson, Billy Hamilton, Michael Taylor, Jake Marisnick, Juan Lagares

Another reason Springer makes so much sense for the Red Sox is that the market takes a steep drop after him, with Bradley being the clear number two in this market. The longtime Red Sox player should get a fair amount of interest because of this, however. It’s hard to parse how much that will matter versus how much he’ll be affected by the weak spending market we all expect to see overall. If the Red Sox don’t want to give up a draft pick at this position, though, Bradley is the next best choice.

Beyond Bradley, another old friend in Pillar is the only other option you’d really feel even a little comfortable playing on a near-everyday basis. He’s a bit worse overall than Bradley across the board, but it’s not really significant in any one area. And while Bradley had a big year at the plate at the right time, so did Pillar, coming off a 111 wRC+. If Bradley’s market explodes, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if the Red Sox decided to turn back to Pillar, who presumably will get a one-year deal.

After that, it’s really just a bunch of backups. The Red Sox may want to look at adding this tier of center fielder, though, especially if they roll with someone like Benintendi in center field. In that scenario, having a defensive specialist like Hamilton to deploy late in games with leads wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Best Fit: To me, Jackie Bradley Jr. remains the best fit of this group. That is assuming his market is decent but nothing to write home about, though. The consensus projection seems to be somewhere in the two-year, $15-$25 million range. If that holds true, that seems like a perfect fit for a reunion with the Red Sox, assuming that’s something to which he’d be open.

Potential Trade Partners

Orioles, White Sox, Tigers, Twins, Rays, Diamondbacks, Braves, Cubs, Marlins, Brewers

Like the free agent market, there is not a whole lot to write home about in the trade market, though I did find a few intriguing options. Number one on the list running away with it is Starling Marte in Miami. The Marlins traded for him at the deadline and picked up his option for 2021, so it’s no guarantee he’ll be dealt this winter. That said, Miami is always looking to save some money and they could get a nice deal here. Marte would safely settle in as number two on the open market if he was a free agent.

Beyond him, the Brewers and Rays could potentially add some starter types to the market, though these are also no guarantees. With Milwaukee, Lorenzo Cain opted out of the season shortly after it began, and if they’re looking to cut payroll that’s an easy spot to do so. The Rays are always unpredictable, and similarly Kevin Kiermaier would be an option for them to cut payroll. He is a fan favorite, though, so it’s not quite so simple.

One name who is almost certainly to be available is Ender Inciarte, who has been pushed out of the Braves lineup by Cristian Pache and potentially Drew Waters as well. Inciarte could likely be had for virtually nothing.

Beyond that, it’s a lot of solid options who are fringe starters. That would be Cedric Mullins in Baltimore, Adam Engel in Chicago, JaCoby Jones in Detroit, Jake Cave in Minnesota, Tim Locastro in Arizona and Albert Almora with the Cubs.

Best Fit: I think if I was choosing the most likely it would be Inciarte, who is coming off a horrible year and for whom the Braves don’t really have room. But the best fit, to be, is Starling Marte. He’d be an upgrade over Bradley, and while he wouldn’t come for a tiny price he’s also a rental, so the cost in terms of prospects wouldn’t be close to insurmountable.

Parting Thoughts

This is not a great year to be looking for a center fielder. Springer is the prize, but there will be a lot of teams fighting to sign him, including those who want to put him in a corner. (The Dirty Dancing reference was not on purpose, I promise.) Bradley makes a lot of sense to come back, but again the market will not be just the Red Sox. There are some quietly intriguing potential trade targets, but for the most part this is a disheartening group. That lends more credence to the idea of moving one of the corner players to center and looking for a replacement in that market. It makes some sense on the surface, but as we’ll talk about as the offseason goes on if this comes to fruition, Benintendi is not really a great option there either.