In all likelihood, the Red Sox are done with the heavy lifting portion of their offseason. Granted, that is not set in stone and there could be other moves, whether in free agency or on the trade market, coming, but it seems more plausible that anything else will be more peripheral. They certainly haven’t had a knockout winter, as their additions have been more complimentary than star-caliber, but they’ve filled most of the holes. Their rotation is likely set beyond some possible minor-league depth signings. The bullpen could maybe have another piece added, but Adam Ottavino is likely the most expensive addition. And then Enrique Hernández in pencilled in at second base. Although, if I were in charge I wouldn’t be putting that in ink any time soon.
With all of these moves, there is still one big one remaining on the roster out in the outfield, and specifically in center field. We’ve covered this a few times but it’s worth going over quickly again. Alex Verdugo can handle center field, at least in my opinion. My reason for saying they need a center fielder doesn’t really have anything to do with him, but rather than moving him to center field creates a hole in right field. Hunter Renfroe can play there, but he shouldn’t be in the lineup every day. So I suppose it would be more accurate to say they need a center fielder or a right fielder, but the way Boston specifically values right field defense given Fenway’s dimensions, any right fielder would have to be at least a borderline center fielder.
And so that brings us to the outfield market, where Jackie Bradley Jr. is the top name who is still without a team. All winter it has been opined here and elsewhere that he makes all the sense in the world for the Red Sox at the right deal, and I’ve shared that opinion as well. However, I’ve been pessimistic it will actually happen for at least a month now, and that only grew worse when rumors came out on the length of contract he was seeking. Now, I think we tend to overrate this sort of rumor — of course a player is looking for a longer deal than he is likely to get, just like a team is looking to give a shorter deal than they’ll likely need to — but him looking for four years makes me think he’ll get at least three, and I don’t see Boston wanting to go more than two.
If that assumption holds true that Bradley has likely priced himself out of where the Red Sox are willing to go for that position, then the conversation turns to the backup plans, which are weak. Again, this is a discussion we’ve had, but it’s worth noting again that Kevin Pillar is the best Plan B. He would be fine, I suppose, but certainly nothing to write home about. And then after that you have guys like Albert Almora and Jake Marisnick, who I’m not sure are worth even guaranteeing a 40-man spot. So to me, the best Plan B for Bradley is already in house with Hernández not playing second base but instead moving over to the outfield.
There’s a few reasons why this makes a ton of sense. The first and most important is that he can do it. Hernández is an outstanding defensive second baseman which is why it makes sense for the Red Sox to plan on playing him there and why I won’t complain too much if/when they do. That said, he’s also quite a good outfielder, rating well in both center and right field by the metrics from his time with the Dodgers. In fact, in recent years he’s played more outfield than second base.
In terms of fit with the Red Sox, you could go in either direction as far as who plays center between him and Verdugo. This is actually a pairing the Dodgers had to maneuver as well, with Hernández playing center a lot in those situations. That’s likely how I would play it as well largely due to the fact that Verdugo has the better arm, but I think how you align those two is the least important consideration for this plan. Even though I’d lean Verdugo in right, you could probably convince me to swap them if you were so inclined.
The important thing here is that Hernández is in the outfield. We’ll get to what that means for the infield in a minute, but the other important factor here is Jarren Duran, who is going to start the coming season in Triple-A, which means he’s knocking on the door to the majors. That’s part of the reason a long-term deal with Bradley is likely not in Boston’s plans, as they don’t want to block Duran. On the flip side, signing someone like Almora or Marisnick may tempt the team to rush their prospect. With Hernández, they have a steady enough presence that they can let Duran do his thing and not have to rush his way to the majors, but also have a versatile enough player that he can move back onto the dirt if and when Duran forces the issue, whenever that may be.
And then there’s the infield part of this. Right now I would assume the Red Sox probably don’t want to spend more than $5-ish million on a center fielder, which in this scenario would transfer over to second base. And if we’re looking at that tier of player, I think the options at second are much more enticing. An incomplete list would include Marwin González (to whom they’ve been connected a bunch recently), Jason Kipnis, Joe Panik, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Brad Miller, and Brock Holt. Obviously these are not world beaters, but I’m both more comfortable with these options than their outfield counterparts, plus there’s also more. You don’t have to be as concerned with getting whoever you perceive as the top option because there are a handful of similarly-talented fallback plans.
The Red Sox haven’t tipped their hands too much as to what their plan with Hernández is, though reading between the lines of reports and comments from both the player and team, it seems likely that he will be playing second base. As I said above, his defense there lends credence to that idea. But I think there should be serious consideration towards making him more of an outfielder in 2021. The free agent options at second base are more abundant and just simply better than those in the outfield, and then you add in Hernández providing good defense out there while also being a flexible enough player to allow Duran to develop on his own timeline. It just makes the most sense.