The Red Sox' punchless punchline of an outfield has gained notoriety in recent days after Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci noted that it is trending toward being the least-productive trio in 53 years.
This is no newsflash to those of us who have spent a third of the season watching this three-piece Bob Zupcic tribute band dubiously establish itself as the anti-Rice-Lynn-Evans.
There isn't a productive hitter in the bunch, what with injuries to 2013 stalwart Shane Victorino, Jackie Bradley's ongoing dance with the Mendoza Line, Grady Sizemore's sad career reincarnation as circa-1979 Ted Sizemore, and struggles from holdovers Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava.
Lost in all of the debate about how to solve this is the lead to Verducci's story: Jacoby Ellsbury has been about as effective in New York as the flailing cast he left behind has been for the Red Sox. Sure, the Red Sox miss him. But even if the Yankees slapped a return-to-sender label on his forehead and sent him back to Boston, he wouldn't entirely solve their outfield situation right now.
The biggest problem is the fits and stops and various absences of Victorino. He was as essential as anyone in the lineup last year, with an .801 OPS, 15 homers, 21 steals, Gold Glove defense in Dewey's domain in right field. This season, he has a .627 OPS in 21 games, with more DL stints (2) than home runs (1).
Last year, he gave us reason to not worry about a thing. But now, at 33, there's worry that he's replicating the lost '12 season with the Dodgers and Phillies that made him such a bargain for the Sox. They desperately need him back, healthy and productive.
Whether that will happens won't be determined in the immediate future -- he's only progressed from his most recent hamstring injury to the point that he's doing light running. And he's not the entire solution, unless somehow John Farrell can pull a fast one and find a way to bat him in all three outfield spots in the lineup. And that sounds more like a Bobby V stunt.
So back to realistic options ... no, wait, let me first address one option that is obviously unrealistic at the moment, but will become less so as the seasons pass.
As much as I've written about the eventual pursuit of Giancarlo Stanton, I've never expected it to happen this year, and especially not now, with the Marlins playing well. But when it comes time to pay him, whether next year or during the 2016 season, well ... let's just remind ourselves that the Marlins traded Miguel Cabrera after his age-24 season for the same reasons. Ultimately, it's up to Stanton whether he stays. I do not believe he will, especially if he has a long memory.
And I am as certain as death, taxes, and irrational sports-radio hatred for Stephen Drew that the Red Sox will be at the front of line to pursue him when the chance comes.
As for realistic options ... well, it's not exactly an inspiring crew. Role player Chris Denorfia might be the most appealing, especially to the Wheaton demographic. Andre Ethier is one of baseball's most overrated players. Matt Kemp still looks damaged -- he can't play center field anymore -- and it may be permanent. Carlos Quentin is a better but often-injured version of Jonny Gomes.
There is no obvious solution out there. Which sends you back to wondering whether players who were so helpful last year are salvageable this season.
To put it another way: I have no idea what is going on with Daniel Nava, whether there is some piece of information about his apparent fall from grace in Farrell's eyes that we don't know. But the willingness to bury him -- even after his horrendous start -- is beyond puzzling. I get why he was nudged aside for Sizemore -- their skill-sets are somewhat redundant, and it's a pedigree thing. A player with Sizemore's history will get more chances to bust out of slump than will a Golden League refugee like Nava. It's not fair, but it's how it works. Chico Outlaws always get the short end.
But giving Alex Hassan -- a nice local story who is little more than organizational depth -- at-bats over Nava under any circumstances is something that demands a no-b.s. explanation from the manager. There's no justification for it, even with Nava's lousy performance (hardly unique to him among those in this lineup) early in the season.
This is a player who was crucial to their success a season ago. He hit .322/.411/.484 in nearly 400 plate appearances against righthanded pitching. And it's not as if pitchers solved him and he faded. He hit .336/.410/.479 in the second half, .396/.473/.563 in August, and .333/.400/.476 last September.
Consider this: there were six outfielders in baseball who hit at least 10 home runs last season while matching or surpassing Nava's .303/.385/.445 slash line:
I don't know, that seems like pretty good company, yes?
I'm not suggesting Nava is the equal to any player on that last. I'm suggesting he proved himself to be a very valuable player last season. He deserves more of a chance than he's had this season to snap out of his funk, and I do not know why he is not getting that chance.
Especially since the alternative is so unappealing. It makes no sense that Nava's frequent platoon partner a season ago, Jonny Gomes, has "taken the job,'' as Farrell recently put it.
Gomes is terrific against lefthanded pitching; his career OPS against southpaws is .880. But against righthanders, he does not hit well enough to justify a regular spot, especially given that he plays defense like he's running from a tornado. His career slash-line in 2,215 plate appearances against righties is .223/.308/.419. Last year, he was decent: .258/.341/.404. This year, in 79 plate appearances, it's not happening: .171/.241/.300.
Farrell clearly believes that Gomes gives them something Nava does not. That because evident in the postseason when he took Nava's at-bats in the World Series. Whether its' something tangible remains to be seen.
Both players helped the Red Sox win last season. Only one of them told us how much he helped them win -- bless you, Ken Rosenthal -- and he happens to be the one who is getting the prolonged chance now.
I don't know whether Gomes is a true leader or not. He seemed to be last year, but I do wonder if this is another case of giving too much rope to a role player who at the forefront of a cohesive locker room on a championship team. Sometimes success in that role leads to exaggerated self-importance, as the manager in the other dugout tonight might recall.
This, from Seth Mnookin's "Feeding the Monster," always a worthwhile re-read when looking for detail and context on the '04 champs and the aftermath:
After the Red Sox won the World Series, the special treatment accorded to members of the team became even more pronounced. Everyone, from Schilling to the rarely used Kevin Youkilis to laidback pitcher Bronson Arroyo, was treated a like a god. For some, this provided all the impetus needed to indulge in their more selfish natures. Take the case of Kevin Millar. In mid-December, Millar -- in the midst of doing his personal victory tour of paid mall appearances and signings -- had announced that he was unwilling to platoon with Doug Mientkiewicz in 2005. "I've already expressed that to Theo. ... I'm not going to platoon behind Doug Mientkiewicz, to be honest with you. I've proven myself here."
You know, I can actually understand that mindset from Millar to some degree. He was crucial to a change in culture around the franchise, and he did have a respectable season in '04 (18 homers, .857 OPS) after hitting 25 homers the previous year. And it was Doug Mientkiewicz.
But as Mnookin writes, one of the Red Sox's solutions in '04 became a problem in '05.
Throughout the first half of the season, as Millar went from being a solid addition to the team to one of the worst players in all of baseball to hold onto his starting job, be became ever-more truculent and entitled. When, on May 1, the Sox offered a minor league contract to 36-year-old John Olerud ... Millar took it as an affront. Because he was such an integral part of the social fabric of the club, his unhappiness affected a disproportionate number of people on the team. As Terry Francona had pithily put it in the offeseason, "Millar is a great team player -- as long as he's playing."
One more quote, from an unidentified front-office executive:
"For all of his talk about 'Cowboy Up,' you know, team first, he b-----s and moans when 'team first' means he might need to ride the pine."
I'm not saying Gomes '14 is the equivalent of Millar '05. We've seen hints of his belief in his own importance, but nothing more drastic than that. But it's worth noting that Francona's decision to grease the squeaky wheel kept Olerud, who played superb defense and put up a .795 OPS, on the bench and Kevin Youkilis on the Pawtucket shuttle
The wrong player got the brunt of the time that season in part because of intangible concepts the year before. Here's hoping John Farrell isn't making the same mistake again.
Daniel Nava never punted beers in to the stands, but he sure did mash righthanded pitching. The Red Sox need production, not promotion. They need last year's version of Nava now.
Why Farrell refuses to try to find it is a mystery that demands an explanation.