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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The 2016 Boston Red Sox Outfield Has Some Questions

Hopes are high for the 2016 Boston Red Sox. A strong offseason that saw them land a number of players, including beefing up a lackluster pitching staff, has optimism running high. However, not everything is necessarily rosy. Although nary a game has been played, one area of potential concern is the outfield, which could be an area of weakness for the team if things don’t go just right.

On the surface, the Red Sox outfield is bursting with potential. 23-year-old Mookie Betts is already a star and will be manning right field. Former first round draft pick Jackie Bradley, Jr. will be the starter in center, while Rusney Castillo, the Cuban defector who snared a big contract two years ago, will guard left field. Veteran Chris Young, who can handle all three position, will be the primary backup, and super utility man Brock Holt will fill in as needed.

Betts is the crown jewel of the unit. With his dynamic skill set (.291 with 18 home runs, 21 stolen bases and above average defense in 2015), his ability to stay on the field is imperative (let’s start by keeping him away from golf carts). The other Boston outfielders certainly have talent but also come with a significant amount of unknown and risk.

Bradley is a world-class defender whose bat has gone through peaks and valleys of Kilimanjaro proportions since becoming a major leaguer. He has hit just .213 in parts of three seasons with the Red Sox but his August last year gave cause for hope, as he produced a .354/.429/.1.163 batting average/OBP/OPS split in 26 games. On the downside, that’s the only time other than July, 2014 (.278) where he has hit as high as .250 in a month while receiving regular playing time. It remains to be seen if he can produce more hot streaks than cold, or if he is simply too inconsistent to be a starter.

Likewise, the 28-year-old Castillo has been a cipher since signing with Boston. The $72 million he received reflects the kind of player the team believes he can be but scouting reports have typically been mixed. He has appeared in 90 major league games, hitting a combined .262 with seven home runs and seven stolen bases. He has also shown good defense despite being shuffled all over the outfield. Like Bradley, he was also red hot last August, producing a.338/.369/.894 split in 22 games. Unfortunately, his results were pedestrian outside of that one month. In addition to adjusting to life and playing ball in a new country, he has also battled nagging injuries. At this point it would not come as a surprise if he were to break out in 2016, or if he continued to produce underwhelming results.

Young is poised to be the primary backup. The 32-year-old right hander has some pop as evidenced by his 169 home runs in 10 major league seasons. However, he has also hit just .235 while striking out approximately once every four plate appearances during his career. Once a strong defensive player, advanced metrics indicate his glove play has slipped in recent years.

Certainly a capable backup, the Red Sox could be in trouble if circumstances necessitated regular playing time for Young. This is primarily because he struggles mightily against right-handed pitching. He has hit just .224 against them in his career and has seen his results increasingly worsen. In 2015, while playing for the New York Yankees, he hit .252 with 14 home runs but batted a measly .182 against right handers. Although he is a valuable veteran, expecting anything other than spot starts against lefties would be a mistake.

The final major component of the outfield mix is Holt. With his ability to play average to above average defense at half a dozen positions, he is a luxury for any roster—as long as he is used judiciously. Having spent all but 24 games of his major league career with Boston, the 27-year-old is a career .277 hitter.  He doesn’t possess much power or speed, so his value comes primarily filling in all over. Although he doesn’t have platoon split issues, he has consistently seen his play decline as the season wears on. For his career, he has produced a .309/.373/.803 split in the first half of the season and a .241/.294/.600 split in the second half. Since such numbers suggest his best use comes when deployed here and there instead of on a regular basis.

The Red Sox do have a wildcard lurking in their minor league system. Although he has only made it as far as Single-A, Andrew Benintendi, the team’s 2015 first-round pick, is widely regarded as a polished five-tool player who could be ready sooner rather than later. There is no need to rush him right now but he could be tapped if any of the big league outfielders falter.

The good news is that the currently projected outfield for the 2016 Red Sox has talent, depth and youth. The bad news is that they lack a track record of full-season consistency and have some players with holes in their game. Since the team is expected to contend it would be nice for that unit to have their outcome be more of a foregone conclusion, but that’s why they play the games and fans should have a good time seeing how it all shakes out.

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