The Red Sox have made exactly one addition to their major-league roster via free agency this winter, bringing in outfielder Hunter Renfroe to shore up that group. It was clear from the start of the offseason that they needed help out beyond the dirt, but what’s not entirely clear at this point is whether or not they feel Renfroe is enough. As we’ve talked about on this very website, we do not believe that is the case as we see the former Padre and Ray as more of a platoon bat. And for what it’s worth, at least publicly it seems the Red Sox are at least considering adding more for the outfield. It would appear that is the way to maximize the potential of this group.
Personally, as I continue to spend a frankly alarming amount of my free time considering the makeup of the outfield as currently constructed, I keep coming back to a reunion with Jackie Bradley Jr. being the move that makes the most sense. Part of this, admittedly, is that he has long been among my favorite players on the team and I would prefer not to have to watch him in another uniform, but that’s not the entire argument. To put it in children’s story terms, Bradley is sort of the third bowl of porridge among available center fielders. He is not overly expensive in terms of money, years or draft pick compensation, but he is also not best utilized as a part-time player. He is simply a solid starter who likely isn’t going to break the bank nor demand a long-term commitment, perfect for where the Red Sox are now.
Of course, Boston is one of just 30 teams in MLB, and as it turns out all 30 of them need to have center fielders in their lineup. And because of that fact, Bradley is going to get, and presumably has gotten, attention from plenty of other clubs this winter. The Red Sox can want him until they go blue in the face, but at the end of the day free agency is a two-way street and if there’s a better offer on the table in terms of money or whatever other reason then Bradley can go there. All of that is to say: There’s no guarantee he would come back to the Red Sox, and they need to have a backup plan. The thing is, the backup options are not great for a variety of reasons.
In the event they do miss out on Bradley, they could just decide to go wild and actually go up the free agent board by targeting George Springer. It’s unclear whether Springer will even sign after Bradley, but let’s just assume for the sake of discussion he is still out there if/when Bradley signs elsewhere. If that is the case, it is honestly hard to see the Red Sox making that move. It’s not only that Springer will demand a (realtively) huge contract, which in its own right is worth pausing over. My main concern with him as a player is that I’m not at all convinced he will stay in center field for his entire contract, or even most of it. That said, I think his bat does play in a corner if/when he does have to move over, which alleviates that specific concern at least a bit. For the team, though, I imagine they do not think they are a Springer away from true contention and thus won’t want to give up their second round draft pick, along with the slot money that comes with it, to add him.
So let’s cross Springer off the board. Bradley is pretty clearly number two among free agent center fielders, so now we’re moving into some shaky options. Kevin Pillar would likely be the next option on the list. Pillar, like Bradley, had a nice 2020, some of which was spent in Boston. Over his career, though, he’s been a slightly worse hitter than Bradley basically every year while providing similarly good defense. He’d be a low-end starter, but he is also the only other name beyond Bradley and Springer that could even be considered a starter. After Pillar, there are guys like Albert Almora and Billy Hamilton, among others, who are fine players on the right team but would be much better served as bench options who can come in late in games for defense and/or baserunning.
Those are the main Bradley alternatives in free agency, but the Red Sox could also go other routes. They could explore the trade market, although it’s not really clear who would be available there. It was my hope the Marlins would have made Starling Marte available this winter as I don’t suspect he’d cost much in terms of prospect with one year remaining on his deal, but there’s no indication he is available. They could also make some calls about guys like Kevin Kiermaier, Ender Inciarte or even Lorenzo Cain, but given where the Red Sox are right now it certainly makes more sense to spend money rather than prospects wherever possible.
They could also look to add another corner outfielder, perhaps someone like Eddie Rosario or another left-handed option to have a straight platoon with Renfroe. The issue here would be two-fold, however. First of all, that would leave Andrew Benintendi with a full-time, non-platoon role, and after his last couple of seasons it would make sense to have Renfroe largely available to spell Benintendi against left-handed pitching. Adding a right-hander would work as well, of course, but there aren’t many of those available this winter.
Beyond that, unless they get a great defensive right fielder, which I’m also not sure I see available in free agency, then the outfield defense has the potential to be a nightmare. And given the state of the pitching staff, one would imagine defense is going to be an important consideration for this outfield unit.
And then there’s the final option, which is just to do nothing. They could potentially look at the other options and decide their flaws are too great, turning this into a Bradley or bust situation. That would leave the outfield in pretty rough shape with Renfroe playing every day and Alex Verdugo sliding into center field on an everyday basis. For whatever it may be worth, I do think Verdugo can handle center field fine, albeit still as a fairly significant downgrade from Bradley. That said, it leaves the outfield as a whole looking pretty rough. This strategy would essentially require extreme confidence in Jarren Duran being someone who could be ready to come up and contribute as soon as midseason 2021. I’m high on Duran and have been since he was drafted, but I’m not ready to put that kind of confidence in him.
All of this is to say Bradley is suddenly a massively important player for the Red Sox this winter. Pitching is obviously the priority, but as I write this there are multiple players at the same tiers among both starters and relievers that the Red Sox don’t need to hone in on just one. In the outfield, the options are thin beyond Bradley. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, as I mentioned, that is not only true for them, and they are likely to find plenty of competition on the market for their long-time center fielder. If they miss out, they could be left scrambling.