Welcome to the 2021 positional preview series. Over the next seven days, we will be looking at each position group — catcher, corner infield, middle infield, corner outfield, center field, starting pitchers, and relief pitchers — throughout the organization. For each installment we will take a look at the projected starter(s), the options to come off the bench, the depth pieces who will be waiting at the Alternate Site/at Triple-A, the top prospect, the sleeper prospect, all the rest of the prospects for each position, and where they stand in the division. Today we look head out to the center fielders.
This is a little bit of a weird situation, because one of the issues all offseason for the Red Sox was that their center field picture wasn’t really clear. This was, as we all know, the reason many of us wanted them to go back to the Jackie Bradley Jr. well. There are some medium-term reasons that didn’t happen (it rhymes with Shmarren Shmuran), but it still left the outfield a little short. I say it’s a weird situation, though, because the way they are approaching things ends up shifting the questions to the corner spots, as we discussed on Thursday. In center field, they actually look pretty solid.
That is because Alex Verdugo is shifting over from right field to center, at least for some points this year. We’ll also see some Hunter Renfroe and Kiké Hernández at points this year, as well as some Duran assuming things go as we expect, but for the most part it appears to be Verdugo’s position on the diamond. And we should start with the defense. On the one hand, this is clearly a downgrade from last year. On the other hand, that’s because he’s replacing probably the best Red Sox center fielder many of us will ever seen. Bradley was that good, and it’s nearly impossible to live up to that. We shouldn’t slight Verdugo, though, because he should be just fine. I’m not expecting elite defense, and I suspect there could be some issues with the intricacies of the triangle. (He did get experience with the Monster in left field last year, though, which should help.) I am, however, expecting above-average defense as Verdugo impressed me in right field and I don’t see why that won’t transfer over to center.
Meanwhile, at the plate Verdugo should also be one of the more important batters in this lineup hitting right at the top. I think he should be hitting leadoff, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day. As far as the overall hitting package goes, I don’t think he belongs in the Bogaerts/Devers/Martinez conversation — the power isn’t there to match the ceiling of those guys — but I fully expect a steady, 110-120 wRC+ heavy on contact and on-base ability. Put it all together and it’s not a super duper star, but it’s a good, consistent three-to-four win player.
Kiké Hernández, Hunter Renfroe
Another reason center field is weird: The bench players, or more accurately back up players, are just starters from other positions. Hernández, as I’ve said in multiple spaces over the last month or so, should be the everyday center fielder in my opinion. It’s not worth getting too up in arms about — again, I have no expectation that Verdugo will be unable to handle it — and he will get time there. Renfroe I’m less excited about, though his defense has been all over the place in his career so it’s possible it will work out well. I think he’ll get the least amount of time here of the three anyway, so again, not something to really get worked up over.
Jarren Duran, César Puello, Michael Gettys, Marcus Wilson
I’m really interested in this group, mostly because of the guy at the top of the list. We’re going to talk about him in more depth in a second, but the extent to which the rest of the names here factor in depend entirely on what kind of timeline they are setting up for Duran. Assuming they want some seasoning for him in Triple-A — and remember, that season now is not starting until May — then the others come into play. And for Puello and Gettys, they are simply stopgap outfielders who can provide passable defense and just barely enough offense to keep the heads above water. Wilson, meanwhile, has more upside, but he’s also likely not ready for the majors. He has the athleticism and power to be a good major leaguer, but he needs to prove he can make the contact to be more than an up-and-down, Quad-A player.
Duran has been one of the talks of Red Sox camp, and he has been riding the hype balloon since the Alternate Site last summer. He showed up there with a new swing to bring more power to the table, and then continued to show that off over the winter, first in Puerto Rico and then in the Caribbean Series. That has only continued this spring. It has totally changed what Duran can be, although we should also surely slow down on it being a definite outcome. It’s easy to forget now, but he still only has a couple of months as high as Double-A, and he struggled when he got there. I’m really having a hard time squaring that with what we’re seeing now and determining what a timeline should be. He looks like he’s nearly ready, but after 2019 he looked like a guy who probably needed at least another full year in the minors.
So to me, the thing that makes the most sense is to split the difference and start him in the minors with an eye at a midseason call-up around June depending on how he’s looking. (And, of course, what’s going on on the major-league roster.) But if he hits something close to his ceiling, Duran is an All-Star. The defense is still raw, but he has the athleticism and baseball IQ to be an above-average center fielder. There are going to be some strikeouts at the plate, but his speed and newfound power, if real, will make him an above-average bat as well. Again, it needs to be stressed that he is not a finished product and that offensive ceiling is not at all sure thing. Still, he’s just straight-up an exciting player, partially because of the potential and also just because of the way it all comes together.
In the international signing period a few years ago, it was Lopez who got the largest bonus from the Red Sox, signing for $1.15 million out of the Dominican Republic. He did get a chance to play in 2019 in the DSL, but obviously that’s all we’ve gotten to see from him thus far given COVID. There, he wasn’t quite a superstar, struggling to hit for power and finishing with a .73 OPS. Those frankly underwhelming numbers are why he is a sleeper, though.
Lopez is exactly the kind of player that I will typically bet on. The lack of power is sure to scare some people away, but everyone describes the makeup as plus, and he has an approach at the plate, and in the field, well beyond his years. The lack of power — it’s not a non-factor in his game, but it’ll probably settle in a bit below average — limits the ceiling some, but give me players with good instincts in the field that will keep them in the middle of the diamond to go with a strong approach at the plate every day of the week. That’s Lopez, who should be at the complex for this summer.
- The list is getting smaller, but there are still some who have Gilberto Jimenez rated higher than Duran. I’m not one of them, but I see the argument. Jimenez has the kind of tools you drool over, with plus-plus speed that will keep him in center field, plus-plus makeup, and good potential at the plate, albeit raw. He last played in Lowell, but interestingly Sox Prospects has him projected to start this season in High-A Greenville. It’s maybe a bit aggressive, but I can see it.
- Jeisson Rosario is on the 40-man, unlike Duran and Jimenez, but he’s pretty clearly the number three center field prospect. His stock has been trending in the wrong direction since entering the organization in a trade last summer, and his ceiling is limited by a big-time lack of power. That said, if his athleticism from 2019 comes back, that plus his approach should give him a relatively high floor.
- Ceddanne Rafaela could have been listed in many of these articles as he is a true super utility guy. He’s probably a future bench player with the bat not projecting to be anything special, but he’s a very good athlete and can play all over the place. As long as he hits a little bit, he can find a role.
- Miguel Bleis was the top international signing from this year’s signing period, getting $1.5 million out of the Dominican Republic. We’re talking about a 17-year-old so there’s still a whole lot to be gleaned about his profile, but he signs as a plus athlete with real power potential.
- Juan Chacon joins Lopez and Bleis as center fielders who topped the last three international signing classes. Chacon got the smallest bonus of the three at $900,000, and he is similar to Bleis as an athletic outfielder, albeit with maybe a bit less in terms of power potential.
Center field in the American League East is pretty clear on the bookends. George Springer joins the division this year after singing with the Blue Jays this winter, and he clearly becomes the top name on this list. Austin Hays in Baltimore is an interesting young player, but he’s clearly last in this group for me. But the middle three can go in any direction. The Yankees have Aaron Hicks, who I have long felt doesn’t get enough credit with his power/on-base combo. Meanwhile, Kevin Kiermaier and Manuel Margot give the Rays a great baseline with defense.
I’ll take Verdugo over both of those though. I don’t buy into the bats in Tampa enough, and Hicks’s injury history scares me off. So I’ll put Verdugo and the Red Sox second, but there is probably some bias in there, and really it’s close enough that I think you can put them in whatever order you want and have a fair argument.