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Hunter Renfroe can excel given the right role

We’ve seen it before.

2020 World Series Game 4: Los Angeles Dodgers v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Kelly Gavin/MLB Photos via Getty Images

After a quiet start to the offseason, which in fairness followed suit with a quiet start to the offseason from nearly every other team around the league as well, the Red Sox finally made their first addition to the 40-man with major-league experience on Monday, signing Hunter Renfroe to a one-year deal. It wasn’t a terribly surprising move in that the fit was fairly clear almost immediately upon him being designated for assignment by the Rays back in November. Once the signing was announced, the reaction from fans spanned pretty much the entire possible spectrum. There were some who loved it, and some who were underwhelmed. Focusing on the latter group, it’s not hard to understand where they’re coming from. If Renfore is the primary outfield addition that’d certainly be disappointing, and the organization hasn’t exactly earned the benefit of the doubt over the last couple of years.

That said, there’s no need to get upset about that possibility at this point. Over the last nine months or so, I’ve been trying to make a concerted effort to not be mad about things that haven’t happened yet. I’ll be upset at the team if Renfroe is one of the top three outfielders at the start of camp, but until that happens I won’t be mad about the team not making more additions. Baseball’s offseason doesn’t work in a top-down manner where the first additions are the best. There is plenty of time for them to make another move. And that, weirdly, is the key to this signing. Renfroe is an interesting players in a lot of ways and I can see his performance going in any number of directions, but looking short-term at the 2021 roster, whether or not we look at this as a win largely hinges on what role he’s given.

One of the more subtle but massively important aspects of baseball is that players need to be put in a position to perform at their best. Every team needs stars with whom you don’t need to worry about that kind of thing, but most of the roster has some sort of flaw good teams can help to put on the backburner. Generally, the concept of getting the most out of players is thrust upon the manager, and Alex Cora will certainly play a role in what level of success we see from Renfroe in 2021. But in this case, at least as things stand right now, that burden falls more on Chaim Bloom.

Wild Card Round - Toronto Blue Jays v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Two Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The logic here doesn’t need to be drawn out too long, as it’s pretty clear. As mentioned above, if Hunter Renfroe is an everyday player, we will likely be disappointed. He has the potential to be a good everyday player, but for the most part it’s just potential and not proven outcomes. Offensively he’s been at least average only once in his career by wRC+, and defensively he’s had one spectacular season and a whole lot of average ones, at least by the metrics. For an everyday corner outfielder that would also push Alex Verdugo out of his natural position to a more challenging one, that’s not great.

He doesn’t have to play every day, though. The Red Sox can still bring in a center fielder, whether it be Jackie Bradley Jr., or Kevin Pillar, or whoever else you see as a target there either in free agency or on the trade market. That would push Renfroe into a bench role, and it’s here where he could excel. And it would be at this point the burden was pushed to Cora to make sure as many of his at bats as possible came against left-handed pitching.

This is where, looking at his career, Renfroe has been so good with the bat in his hand. Looking over his body of work in the majors, the extent to which he has been better against southpaws than right-handed pitchers is massive, with a career 137 wRC+ against lefties versus a mark of 87 against righties. And really, the difference comes down to control of the strike zone, as his strikeout rate drops from 31 percent to 21 percent from righties to lefties while his walk rate jumps from six percent to 11 percent.

The idea of a lefty-mashing platoon corner outfielder is not a foreign concept to the Red Sox, either, as there have been two very successful examples in recent franchise history. Back in 2013, one of the most underrated aspects of that championship club was the platoon with Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes in left field. On their own, neither of those players were particularly special. Together, being in put in the best position to succeed, they were the second best group of left fielders in baseball by fWAR. More recently, Chris Young was able to carve out a nice role for himself in the Red Sox outfield, putting up a 126 wRC+ in 2016 as the team went on to win the division.

Renfroe can follow in those footsteps. And while it’s an underwhelming role for him, it’s one that can pay off in a big way. I’m not expecting Renfroe to become a folk hero, but we’ve seen it happen with Gomes, which just goes to prove a platoon player can be a key player. And looking at this Red Sox roster, it’s not hard to see where the role comes into play. Alex Verdugo showed that he can handle himself just fine against lefties, but Andrew Benintendi is a different story. A straight platoon between the two of them could be in play, or if they were to bring back Jackie Bradley Jr. or another lefty to play center field, Renfroe could spell both.

And that is the other part of this. While, in an ideal world, Renfroe would start the year as a platoon player, that doesn’t mean that’s his only role. He could be a pinch hitter to face tough lefties late in games. The Yankees have a couple of those. And more importantly, he’d serve as outfield depth, which is not a strength in the upper levels of the Red Sox farm system. Beyond Renfroe, players like Yairo Muñoz and Michael Chavis are the top backup outfielders on the roster, along with guys like César Puello, Marcus Wilson and Michael Gettys at Triple-A. Jarren Duran could be another option later in the year, but they would like to have every reason not to rush him to the majors. Penciling Renfroe in as an everyday player from the start wouldn’t be ideal, but having him in case of injury or, perhaps in the case of Benintendi, underperformance is much more attractive than what they had for that scenario before the signing.

It’s hard to evaluate a move like this on its face at this point in the winter, because it is so dependent on what else happens. On the one hand, Renfroe is a player who has never had a season worth even two wins by fWAR (he does have one worth 1.9, to be fair). For a team trying to get back to relevance, that’s not great. On the other hand, if they sign another outfielder, he’d serve as a massive upgrade over their current fourth outfielder candidates and would be great utilized as a lefty-mashing corner outfielder. And we’ve certainly seen those types of players pay off before.