Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

Betts or Bust? How Can the Red Sox Fix Their Offensively Horrendous Outfield?

Jon Durr/USA Today

Major League Baseball released the latest standings for its All-Star Game voting this week. David Ortiz is second to the Orioles’ Nelson Cruz among designated hitters. Dustin Pedroia is third in second base voting behind Robinson Cano of the Mariners, and Detroit’s Ian Kinsler. A.J. Pierzynski is fifth among catchers, which probably means A.J. Pierzynski is stuffing the ballot box on his way out of the park every evening.

To the surprise of nobody, there were no Red Sox outfielders in the running.

At this stage, not even their own mothers are voting for them. Boston has received putrid output from outfielders Jonny Gomes, Jackie Bradley, Jr., Mike Carp, Shane Victorino, Alex Hassan, Daniel Nava, and Grady Sizemore. Right fielders have delivered a .209 average and .571 OPS, the worst in baseball. Only the Reds have a worse batting average out of right field. From center field: a .191 average and .586 OPS, both the worst in the major leagues. In left: .242 average, .682 OPS, numbers that are downright Ruthian in comparison.

As Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci pointed out, they are on pace to become the worst hitting collection of Boston outfielders since the dawn of the 162-game era. Their collective .215 batting average is worse than the Nava-Darnell McDonald-J.D. Drew outfield in 2010. Billy Hatcher, Bob Zupcic, and Tom Brunansky had a devilishly better OPS (.666) in 1992 than the 2014 group (.614). Gomes, Bradley, and Victorino (whenever he returns from the disabled list) are on pace for a paltry 28 home runs this season, displaying even less power than Mike Greenwell, Hatcher, and Carlos Quintana did (31) in 1993.


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“Wait, it, it gets worse,” Verducci writes. “This group of Red Sox outfielders are on pace to be the worst hitting outfield in the past 53 years among all teams. When you look at the competition to be the worst of the worst, you will notice how hard it is to get a hit in the major leagues in this era. Three of the five worst outfields show up in just the past three years, though the Red Sox and White Sox of this year still have two-thirds of a season to pull up their mark.”

On that note, Tuesday's 5-3 loss in Cleveland delivered at least a sense of capability, as the outfield went 2-for-10 as a group against Indians pitching. Hey, when you're grasping, you take what you can get.

Don't blame the useless assets on Jacoby Ellsbury's departure either. As Verducci points out, the richest punch-and-judy hitter in Major League Baseball history is having his own problems these days. No, this is a problem surrounding the mystery of how Nava can go from a serviceable major leaguer one season to a puddle of productivity the next. Victorino's consistent hamstring issues (limiting him to only 21 games) haven't done the Sox any favors either. Bradley's defense has been good enough to keep him on a daily basis, but the Sizemore experiment has failed, leading to more Gomes than is healthy for any club.

Last year, Boston outfielders led the league in hitting (.285). This year, they lead the league in whispers of potential replacements.

Nick Cafardo laid out some of the names that might be available prior to the July 31 trading deadline, and the list brews about as much intrigue as C-Span's fall lineup: David Murphy, John Mayberry, Jr., Carlos Quentin, Cody Ross, Jose Tabata, yuck, yuck, and yuck. Andre Ethier and his mammoth contract might be somewhat intriguing, as would be the Twins’ Josh Willingham, if healthy, and the Royals’ Alex Gordon. But the Dodgers’ right fielder is on the books for $18 million each of the next two seasons, and $17.5 million in 2017, and Los Angeles is watching his stats (.248 average, two home runs, .691 OPS in 2014) decline on an annual basis. Minnesota is likely to hang on to Willingham - who just returned from a wrist injury this week and has already hit a pair of home runs, including a three-run shot Tuesday night against Milwaukee – for some time as they try to sneak out of the basement in the AL Central, where it is only five games behind the reeling Tigers (3-7 in their last 10 games). Kansas City is likely in the same boat, also only five games in back of Detroit, and likely to hang onto so-so Gordon.

So, is it Mookie Betts or bust?

After tearing up Double-A with the Portland Sea Dogs (hitting .355 with six home runs, and a .994 OPS), the speedy outfielder, who stole 22 bases in 54 games with Portland, was promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket on Tuesday. In his first game with the PawSox, Betts was 0-for-4 with a walk.

“You look at his performance over the course of the season to date and he’s really excelled in every area of the game,” Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington told the Providence Journal. “He’s controlling the strike zone, he’s running the bases, he’s playing defense, he’s obviously hitting, he’s hitting for power.

“At some point, we have an obligation to challenge our young players when they are performing at a level where it’s not certain that they’re being challenged. It’s up to us to make sure that they’re being challenged.”

Cherington’s aggressiveness in that area of the farm system is a welcome respite from the too-often, tedious patience of the past. Mind you, it was a year ago this week that Xander Bogaerts got the call to Pawtucket, eventually landing on the big league roster by late August. From there, he proved himself to be enough of a factor to trust in the postseason, and this season he’s already making a mockery out of Rookie of the Year voting. But even if the 21-year-old Betts tears up Triple-A the way Bogaerts did last season (nine home runs, .822 OPS in 60 games), he’s still at least two months away from the majors.

The Sox need help now, and by now, we mean yesterday.

But hey, at least the Sox went out and got a $9.5 million shortstop. That should help medicate their most glaring weakness.