First in a four-part series looking at the Red Sox positional groups and possible solutions via free agency. Today, we'll lead off with outfielders.
During my weekly chat at this address, there's one recurring lately question that I generally dodge because I just don't have the answer. (No, it's not "why are your hair, shirt and skin the same color?")
What will the Red Sox' lineup look like on Opening Day?
There are few certainties, that's for sure. Dustin Pedroia will be at second base, his uniform dirty by the end of the flyover. Will Middlebrooks will be at third. David Ortiz is back for an 11th season and, barring catastrophe, a 12th in a deal that is good for him, the franchise, the fans, and the lineup.
And provided he doesn't literally run into Adrian Beltre during the offseason, Jacoby Ellsbury should be in center field in the final year of his deal.
But even Ellsbury's return isn't a sure thing, and beyond the aforementioned names, the lineup is dotted with question mark after question mark.
Does Jose Iglesias, with the golden glove and noodle bat, get the first shot at shortstop? Who are the corner outfielders? And what about first base?
The offseason is always complex -- Theo Epstein used to say there was a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C for everything, all interdependent on other moves -- and circumstances have made it extraordinarily challenging for his successor, Ben Cherington. The Red Sox, coming off a 93-loss season in which three presumably core players -- Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett -- were sent to the Dodgers in an unprecedented opportunity to reset the payroll and the roster.
Now Cherington has millions to spend, should he so choose, in a free-agent class that has decent depth but no franchise-changing superstars other than Josh Hamilton, a risk the Red Sox are unlikely to take.
(Cherington has the pieces to make trades to fill in the roster voids, but that's a topic for another day over the hot stove. Hey, it's a long offseason.)
Today, let's begin our four-part look at the state of the Red Sox roster -- incumbents, placeholders and prospects alike -- and ways it can be amended and mended by free agency. We'll start with the outfielders.
Jacoby Ellsbury is the biggest wild card on the Red Sox roster. So much depends on what they do with him, and if he sticks around, what he is as a player. Ben Cherington should shop him this offseason with free agency a year away, but how does he judge what equal value is at this point? Ellsbury has had two seasons ruined by blunt-force injury sandwiched around a sensational 2011 in which he was the best offensive player in the league and hit brilliantly down the stretch as the season was caving in around him. Unless they get a bushel of quality prospects or a player who is equal to a healthy Ellsbury in value, I hope they keep him around, bat him third, and benefit in the present from his plans for the future.
Given that he's played just 93 games over the past two seasons, it's would be foolish to expect Ryan Kalish to fill a significant role early in the season. The best hope is that he gets healthy, shakes off the rust, and reminds us over the summer why the Red Sox -- and most of us -- liked him better than Josh Reddick as a long-term prospect.
The feel-good story of 2010 had an unexpected prologue that was a blast for a while, but Daniel Nava will be 30 on Opening Day and hit .188 with a .607 OPS in the second half. The Red Sox need to do better. He's improved his defense to adequate, and his respectable on-base skills should give him a chance, ideally, to continue his major-league career as a bench player in the National League.
Ryan Sweeney is the current example of the Brad Komminsk rule --looking the part doesn't mean you can play it. He's a decent fifth outfielder, eminently replaceable.
In 1977, Pedro Guererro hit .403 with a 1.077 OPS in 144 plate appearances, one of seven players with at least as many trips to the plate to hit over .300. In 1979, Mickey Hatcher hit .371 in .440 plate appearances. In 1981, Mike Marshall hit .373 with 34 homers and 137 RBIs in 541 PAs, and the next year he hit .388 before sticking with the Dodgers. In 1985, Sid Bream hit .370 in 333 PAs. In 1987, Jeff Hamilton hit .360. Billy Ashley slugged 37 homers, batted .345, and put up an 1.129 OPS in 1994.
I mention all of this for two reasons:
1) It's always fun to look up the monster numbers players both great and something considerably less than great put up in Albuquerque over the years.
2) Jerry Sands had two terrific seasons there, but I'm going to trust the assessments that suggest he'll be a role player rather than a star before I'll ever trust those numbers.
The Red Sox do have two potential regulars arriving soon, but the question is whether Jackie Bradley Jr. and Bryce Brentz will be factors this year. Brentz is a strong-armed power-hitting right fielder who should see Boston at some point in 2013. Bradley is the better prospect, ranked second to Xander Bogaerts in the Red Sox organization by Baseball America, but he has just 229 at-bats at the Double A level. He's a potential Gold Glove center fielder with tremendous on-base skills, and his charisma and personality will make him an instant fan-favorite in Boston. He's Ellsbury's eventual replacement in center, and the hunch here is that his path is similar to the incumbent's, with a late-summer call-up a possibility if he can avoid any potholes between Portland and Pawtucket. He did slump late last season in Portland, but still finished with a .371 on-base percentage.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?
I'll stick with my standard line on Cody Ross: He's just good enough that you're always casting an eye around for someone slightly better. He's a nice guy who had a nice season for the Sox -- 22 homers overall, a .921 OPS at Fenway, and a 1.010 OPS in 150 plate appearances against lefties. But he's also a bit overrated because he's one of the few Red Sox who was fun to watch and productive during a miserable season. Mark Bellhorn had a higher OPS in 2004 (.817) than Ross did last season (.807). His OPS was .684 on the road, and he had a .729 OPS against righthanded pitching. The Red Sox should draw the line at two years.
* * *
Hypothetical: It's a slow winter's day on 4 Yawkey Way. You're Ben Cherington, killing time between phone calls by playing the NBA2K13 Celtics in franchise mode on Carmine. Suddenly, the phone rings. It's Michael Moye, Josh Hamilton's agent. After expressing surprise that Scott Boras isn't Hamilton's agent since it just seems natural, you ask Moye what he wants. He tells you: Josh wants to play in Boston. He feels bad for what Bobby V hath wrought or something like that. All it'll take $90 million over three years. You drop the phone. What do you say when you pick it up? No, thanks. Too risky. Right? Right?
There are rumors that B.J. Upton could get in the vicinity of $100 million. He has that kind of talent, but to call him lackadaisical at times would be to insult those who really are lackadaisical, and it's telling that even Joe Maddon struggled to get through to him. He's a smart kid and won't be 28 until August, but the price tag is way too high for what he has been.
All we really know about Melky Cabrera is that he's lousy at starting up a website. Is he the All-Star who had a .906 OPS for the Giants before his PED suspension, or is the guy who rarely looked like a major leaguer (.671 OPS) two years ago for the Braves?
OTHER PERSONS OF INTEREST
Nick Swisher is such a ham he makes Kevin Millar look cameraphobic, and there has to be a reason why the Yankees have seemingly little interest in bringing him back (though they did make him a qualifying offer). But he gets on base consistently (at least during the regular season), has hit between 21 and 35 homers in each of his eight seasons, and offers positional flexibility. If the Sox could get him for, say, four years and $60 million, he'd probably be worth putting up with.
Angel Pagan is a solid all-around player who had a sneaky-good year for the Giants, and he can bond with Jacoby Ellsbury over the awesome feeling of winning the entire country a free taco.
I'm sure David Ortiz would love a reunion with his 1997 New Britain Rock Cats teammate, but Torii Hunter has had his issues with Boston, and I bet he ends up with their rival in New York.
Ryan Ludwick is poor man's Cody Ross. The real Cody Ross is marginal enough.
After doing so with Michael Bourn's childhood friend Carl Crawford, they won't be overpaying another player on the wrong side of 30 who is speed-dependent.
BEST-CASE SCENARIO WITHIN REASON
BECAUSE HAMILTON ISN'T HAPPENING
Ellsbury stays healthy and re-emerges as an MVP candidate, Ross returns and platoons with Kalish, Brentz and/or Bradley provide late-season reinforcements, and Swisher signs at a reasonable rate if a quality young outfielder can't be acquired via trade. If you have a better solution than Swisher, I'd love to hear it.
Ellsbury gets hurt, Kalish gets hurt, Nava gets 450 at-bats, and Swisher signs a nine-figure deal that includes his own block of programming on NESN.
You know, I think the best-case scenario actually is fairly likely. Let's go with it.
Catchers and infielders coming tomorrow.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.