It’s kind of jarring to think about how dramatically the outfield picture in Boston has changed in just a few years. It wasn’t very long ago that the idea of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi being the trio for years to come was reasonable. Now, there’s at least some chance none of them are among the starters in 2021. As of right now, the Red Sox outfield puzzle is a complicated one that doesn’t really have a simple answer. I laid out all of the possible options for the group a couple weeks back, and none of them really stand out as great options.
Speaking only for myself, simply signing a center fielder remains the best option. The issue with that is there just aren’t a ton of players available at that position. There is, essentially, George Springer, Bradley, and Kevin Pillar in free agency and not a whole lot beyond that. So if you miss out on those guys or decide to go in a different direct, the next best move to me is sliding Alex Verdugo into center field and finding a right fielder.
There’s an issue here as well, though. For the Red Sox, right field is an important position. They’ve long treated it like a second center field, and given the big, weird right field at Fenway it’s an understandable decision. But that also shortens the list of players you feel comfortable signing for that position since you’re putting such a premium on the defense.
So if we look at the list of corner outfielders you feel comfortable in right at Fenway, Hunter Renfroe shows up. He is a relatively recent free agent, having just been designated for assignment by the Rays earlier in the offseason. He was arbitration-eligible and the Rays weren’t willing to pay those prices for him, and they cut him to make room for the Rule 5 protection deadline. So he now hits the open market, and there is a case here for the Red Sox.
The right-handed slugger started his career with the Padres, having been drafted 13th overall back in 2013, making his major-league debut with San Diego in 2016 and playing regularly for the first time in 2017. The Rays then traded for the outfielder last winter in the deal that sent Tommy Pham out west. Renfroe would ultimately spend just the one summer in Tampa, and it did not go well. He sits as a free agent coming off a season in which he hit just .156/.252/.393 for a 76 wRC+.
There are two ways of looking at that. Consider it the glass half full/half empty of the baseball world. One person could look at that and scoff. Another could look at that line and consider it an option to buy-low. Of course, this thought process has to include the rest of his career. And to be fair to Renfroe, this is the worst he’s ever been offensively, and it came over only 139 plate appearances. Still, to take the other side of the argument, he’s been below-average (albeit not by a ton) in two of his other three full seasons. Prior to 2020, his previous three wRC+’s starting with 2019 and going back were 98, 114, and 94. That covers all of the seasons in which he had regular playing time in the majors.
The style of offense Renfroe brings to the table is one that is very well-suited for this modern game of baseball, which is to say he’s a three true outcome type of batter. The soon-to-be 29-year-old (his birthday is in January) is going to strike out. He has never had a season in which he didn’t strike out in at least a quarter of his plate appearances, at least if we’re willing to round 24.7 up to 25, which I am. He’s also going to hit for power. Renfroe has never posted an Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) under .236, and that comes with his entire career coming in below-average home parks for right-handed home run hitters. The walk rate hasn’t been quite as consistent in his career, but he’s shown improvement and has been above nine percent in each of the last two seasons.
So when you put it all together, you get a guy who is not going to hit for a high average but can get up to a solid on-base percentage thanks to his patience and his power has the potential to get him over the hump altogether. That said, he’s only gotten over the hump of an average stat-line (by wRC+) once in his career, and early projections from FanGraphs have him just slightly below-average. However, that he’s under 30 and would get to use the Monster to his advantage in this scenario could reasonably lead one to believe more in the upside.
The defense is an important part of this discussion as well, though. As I mentioned at the top, the Red Sox don’t take glovework lightly here. While you can hand-wave defense in left field at Fenway, right field is a different beast. And defensively, Renfroe has sort of been all over the place. I’m not the biggest fan of defensive metrics in the world, but by the metrics he’s been average-to-below-average for most of his career. But in 2019, he suddenly turned into a Gold Glove caliber, elite type of defensive player. He did regress from that in 2020, but sample size issues are abound there.
At the end of the day, I’m not the biggest fan of the Renfroe-type of player. I don’t love the three true outcome game, and the Red Sox already have that with Bobby Dalbec. I’d also prefer to not go super cheap at this position, and that’s likely what Renfroe would be. I’d guess something like $5 million would get it done, though I could be underestimating that a bit. The other side of that argument, though, points to his age and upside where he puts up that 110-range wRC+ while playing outstanding defense, and you can then use the money you save here and spend it on more significant pitching upgrades. So while he wouldn’t be my top choice in the outfield, they could certainly do worse, and at the very least he’s worth consideration.