Coming off a rather mediocre 2022, there may not be anyone on the Red Sox this season who has more to prove than right fielder Alex Verdugo. Backed up by 2022 OBP stud Rob Refsnyder and a pleasant surprise this spring in Raimel Tapia, the position is one of the more secure ones on the roster entering this season.
The Starter – Alex Verdugo
The key return in the Mookie Betts trade with the Dodgers, the key question that we as a fanbase ask each year is whether Verdugo has that next gear to put together a monster season. Yet, thus far, in his four major league seasons as a full-time outfielder, Verdugo has put together four very similar offensive seasons, while recently regressing in his defensive metrics. It can be frustrating to watch at times as the game-changing plays and clutch hits are often counteracted by a baserunning blunder or a defensive lapse.
We heard straight from Alex Cora on the final day of last season, essentially, that it is put up or shut up time for Verdugo. “Alex,” without hesitation, Cora answered when asked who needed to take a step forward in 2023. “Yeah, he hit for average, but he can be a lot better baserunning, defensively. Who is he gonna be?” As spring training started, Verdugo told the media that he heard Cora’s words loud and clear, “He wasn’t saying it out of spite. He was saying it because he truly believes that there’s so much more and that he wants to figure out a way to spark it and to get it. I think he did. It was just that final straw, man. I was just tired of people always having something to say about me and it’s like, you know what, (expletive) it. Let’s handle what I can handle. Let’s control what I can control and put in the work.”
From 2019 through 2022, respectively, Verdugo’s stat lines have looked eerily similar in many categories:
The drop-off in WAR to 1.2 in the most recent season is the result of a subpar defensive season, as Cora alluded to. Verdugo totaled a negative-5 in the Outs Above Average (OAA) metric on Statcast. What sticks out in his OAA is that he was negative-1 in 115 attempts in right field and negative-4 in 184 attempts in left field, despite right field being notably more difficult at Fenway Park. My inclination had been that Verdugo would be best suited for left field but this shows otherwise, and likely why we will see him in right field with newcomer Masataka Yoshida playing in left. Verdugo’s arm strength is almost exactly middle of the pack in the outfield (76th of 156) and he did have eight outfield assists in 2022, tying him for 10th in all of baseball, while making five errors.
Verdugo has given us the standard “best shape of my life” quotes entering this season, citing his better offseason diet and workout, as well as a shoulder impingement that ailed him for much of 2022. He is a strong candidate to hit leadoff against righthanders on a team that doesn’t have a leadoff hitter thanks to his career .341 OBP (.352 career vs RHP). It’s time for Verdugo to (his words) “put in the work” to get to that next level.
The journeyman infielder/outfielder has exclusively played in the outfield for the Red Sox so far and thrived, albeit in limited at bats. His .307/.384/.497 slash in 177 plate appearances last year was essential with so many injuries around him, and he was even better against left-handed pitching (.359/.411/.594 in 73 PAs), which makes him a sneaky candidate to leadoff in a pinch. Refsnyder was a negative-2 OAA in right field, but did make some highlight catches as well. He’s hitting just .083 in the spring (3-for-36 with eight walks) but is almost certain to make the team.
The lefthanded hitting Tapia was given a non-guaranteed invite to spring training and has run with it. The Red Sox are almost forced to put him on the opening day roster, thanks to an opt-out clause that would result in another team almost surely pulling the trigger to bring in Tapia if he were to exercise it. He is slashing .351/.400/.649 with two HR and four RBI, and is 3-for-3 on the bases this spring. With a 5.5% career walk rate, Tapia may be more of a 9-hitter but has good bat control with a 18.5% career K-rate and even stole 20 bases in 2021 for Colorado. Tapia has always seemed like a Red Sox killer and has a .264 average with 3 HR and 16 RBI against Boston in his career in 17 games and I, for one, would like to see him here in a home uniform this season.
Minor League Depth
Jarren Duran came into the spring with another swing change, and hit a bomb early on before joining Mexico (along with Verdugo) for the World Baseball Classic. He only amassed five at-bats without a hit in the six games Mexico played in the tournament. Duran still has options for Triple-A and his .221 average with a 28.3 K% and lack of hustle in the field didn’t give him a ton of leeway last season. At 26-years-old, it’s most likely Duran starts at Triple-A and it isn’t inconceivable that he could be involved in a trade if the 26-man (or 40-man) roster becomes a crunch. Duran did have 16 HRs and 16 SBs in 2021, and 10 HRs and 18 SBs in 2022, in fewer than 70 games in each season. The talent is there, and Duran has almost as much to prove as Verdugo in 2023.
In terms of other prior MLB experience, Greg Allen and Narciso Crook are in camp. Allen got some run from 2017-2020 with Cleveland, even stealing 21 bases in 2018. He was last seen in Pittsburgh a year ago but hit just .186 in 46 games. He is hitting a similar .194 in spring training, but his speed, defense, and experience are likely enough to keep him around in the minor leagues, if needed. Crook has great raw power and popped 17 home runs for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs last year, which led to his major league debut with Chicago. He totaled eight at-bats there and is considered nothing more than an “organization depth player” according to Sox Prospects. Crook is hitting just .118 in the spring, with 13 K’s in 34 at-bats.
Ryan Fitzgerald can be a backup at just about any position at this point. He added right field to that mix for the first time a year ago, appearing 17 times in right field (13 starts) at Triple-A. His 16 HR and 72 RBI is interesting, but it came with just a .219 average in Worcester. Fitzgerald has a .951 OPS in 22 at-bats this spring.
Finally, Wilyer Abreu should not be dismissed since he was added to the 40-man roster this offseason. Part of the return for Christian Vazquez from Houston, Abreu injured his hamstring two weeks ago after a 4-for-12 start which is rumored to be significant enough to need a trip to the 60-day IL. The 23-year-old will need to cut down on his strikeouts in the minor leagues to be considered.
Fangraphs’ Boston Red Sox 2023 Right Field Projections
1. Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
2. George Springer, Toronto Blue Jays
3. Alex Verdugo, Boston Red Sox
4. Anthony Santander, Baltimore Orioles
5. Manuel Margot, Tampa Bay Rays
Can’t imagine an explanation is needed for number one. Since Harrison Bader was listed in our center field preview, we will list Judge in right field as he will likely play the majority of his games here once Bader returns from injury. Springer will almost certainly land on the injured list twice but he will almost certainly be a game changer in every way possible while on the field, contributing with batting average, power, defense, and even speed with a surprising 14 steals in 2022. Despite the 33 home runs in 2022 from Santander, I’ll give Verdugo the slight edge with his track record over the past four seasons and Santander’s .245 career BA. Margot rounds out the list but should not be slept on. He’s healthy entering 2023, and has produced in recent years while on the field, including a 106 wRC+ and 1.5 fWAR in 89 games last year.