When Enrique Hernández stepped into the batter’s box to lead off Tuesday night’s matchup between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago White Sox, he was set to face Dylan Cease, a budding right-handed ace with powerful strikeout material. It was a matchup that certainly didn’t favor Hernández, who went 0-for-2 against Cease when the two types of Sox met up earlier this month and who has been 31 percent below league average offensively this season.
However, Cease’s arsenal didn’t matter much, as Hernández hit a laser beam into the left field seats on the first pitch. The dinger was the beginning of a 16-3 dropkicking by the Red Sox, who have been battering opposing pitchers of late, turning the tide on a pretty horrid start to the season.
Although the entire lineup (minus Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez) carries the blame for the Red Sox’s struggles on offense overall this season, one positional group has been particularly brutal: the outfield. Even after Tuesday’s slugfest, Red Sox outfielders are tied for 26th in MLB with a wRC+ of 74 while sitting in 27th in wOBA (.273). So, Hernández’s leadoff home run on Tuesday wasn’t just a microcosm of a turnaround for the entire lineup; it was a sign that the outfield has some offensive life after all. In fact, in the last week, Red Sox outfielders have a combined wRC+ of 156, with Jackie Bradley Jr. (255 wRC+), Franchy Cordero (161 wRC+) and Hernández (157 wRC+) leading the way, although Cordero has also been playing a fair amount of first base.
Now that their outfielders have shown they can contribute meaningfully on offense (even if those small sample stats are entirely unsustainable), the Red Sox need to continue to get positive offensive value from this part of the roster and to do so for longer stretches, particularly since Alex Verdugo is still struggling. How might that come to pass?
The first and easiest answer is for Red Sox outfielders to keep on their current trajectory.
Bradley Jr. may not be 155 percent better than league average all season, but if he can at least hover around a 100 wRC+, it would go a long way. Bradley Jr. is still a plus defender and he’s usually batting fairly low in the lineup, so nobody is expecting him to be a .300 hitter or anything, but good defense won’t be enough to carry him if he doesn’t continue improving on what has been a rough year at the plate overall (76 wRC+ in 135 plate appearances).
Keeping things on the up and up is even more important for Hernández, someone whom the Red Sox frequently employ as a leadoff hitter and in other prominent spots in the lineup. In fact, Hernandez has not batted lower than sixth this year despite an offensive profile 31 percent below league average overall.
While Hernández and Bradley Jr. are bouncing back, Cordero has been surprisingly solid for most of the year while splitting time between the outfield and first base. He’s slashing .255/.328/.418 with a 112 wRC+ and he has a hard contact rate of 40.9 percent, which leads all Red Sox hitters with at least 50 plate appearances. Matt wrote about this last week, but Cordero is making a strong push to be a permanent part of the lineup.
Even as Bradley Jr. Hernández and Cordero have all been hitting well of late, the Red Sox’s supposedly best outfielder offensively speaking is still slumping, indicating that there could be even better production from the group in the near future. Alex Verdugo has just an 84 wRC+ over the last week and an even more miserable mark of 59 overall this season. But Verdugo has much better underlying numbers than some of his fellow outfielders, including a 94th percentile strikeout rate, a 78th percentile expected batting average and an 85th percentile expecting slugging percentage. The 26-year-old is unfortunately rolling over into too many groundballs, but there are indications that he’ll get back on track.
So, how likely is it that the Red Sox’s collection of outfielders will keep it rolling? The odds are actually pretty good based on projections. Most systems expect Hernández and Verdugo to be comfortably above league average the rest of the way and even Cordero is pegged to wind up somewhere around a 100 wRC+. Those same systems are less high on Bradley Jr., but with readings anywhere from the low 80s to the low 90s in wRC+, there’s belief he will improve at least marginally. Things could be a lot worse for a strong defender batting at the bottom of the order.
If the Red Sox’s outfielders regress back to where they were in April and early May at the plate, then the next option may be to turn to the farm system. Unfortunately, Boston’s minor league affiliates aren’t exactly teaming with MLB-ready outfield prospects, but despite his struggles in the big leagues last season, Jarren Duran’s potential is still in there if he can unlock it. The speedy outfielder is mashing in Triple-A once again this season (160 wRC+ in 132 plate appearances) and if he can figure out how to translate that success at the next level, then the Red Sox will suddenly have a much more enviable group of outfielders even with any offensive regression from their regulars.
The first two options here are built on optimism. The first implies a switch has been flipped and the Red Sox’s outfielders will be more offensively competent the rest of the season. The second implies Duran will get a chance to prove himself and succeed in doing so. Neither path is remotely unreasonable to expect, let alone hope for, but what if the worst should happen? What if this week of offensive power from the outfield is a mirage and Duran still isn’t ready?
Answering that question depends a bit on the front office’s outlook for the season. Although the Red Sox have clawed their way back to within shouting distance of .500 and Wild Card contention, another long stretch of losing could turn this back into a futile season, meaning there would be no incentive to try to improve the roster before next winter. However, if the Red Sox continue their winning ways and the outfield does need help, then they could always look to the trade market. Obviously, it’s a bit early to talk trade season, what with the trade deadline not until August, but if the Red Sox think they can contend and that adding an outfielder will make a difference, why wait?
When it comes to potential targets, it’s tough to pinpoint who exactly might be available, but by taking a look at some of the free agents to be this winter, we can make some guesses. Some of the names that stick out include Wil Myers, Tyler Naquin, Robbie Grossman and maybe even our old pal Andrew Benintendi. In addition, Bryan Reynolds is a player whose name has been in trade rumors for months.
Looking a little deeper, Reynolds would obviously come with the steepest asking price even though he’s been a slightly below league average hitter for the Pirates this season. Meanwhile, Myers was rumored to be available for trade during the offseason and Naquin and Grossman are both playing for teams that appear to be far from contention, even if Grossman’s Tigers had higher hopes this season. Of those three, only Naquin is hitting better than league average, so I wouldn’t expect the Red Sox to trip over themselves to make any of those deals, but maybe improving their outfield depth marginally would be worth it for the right price. As for Benintendi, a deal for him seems like a pipe dream, but he has a 141 wRC+ this season and is only on a one-year deal with the still rebuilding Kansas City Royals. Again, it’s still early and I don’t see how many of these deals would happen, but this at least paints a picture of the type of options the Red Sox would have if they opt to go for external help.
Plotting trades at this point is a pretty drastic action, of course, and pinning all hopes on Duran is also a dangerous course of action. When it comes down to it, the simplest course is the best option here, meaning the Red Sox’s need their outfielders to continue to collectively improve at the plate to help bolster a team-wide turnaround.
All statistics in this piece are from before games on May 25.