Column: The Red Sox Have Long-Term Issues in Center Field

The Red Sox outfield has seen a lot of change this offseason.

Its star for the last six seasons, Mookie Betts, was traded to Los Angeles.

His replacements? Two fresh faces: former Dodgers first-round pick Alex Verdugo, and the recently-signed veteran Kevin Pillar.

The Red Sox outfield for this season actually features a good amount of talent. Along with Verdugo and Pillar, Boston still has 25-year-old Andrew Benintendi, three-time Silver Slugger J.D. Martinez, and the Gold Glove-winning Jackie Bradley Jr.

But the outfield woes for Boston lie long after the 2020 season. Fans do not have to look any further than the 2020-21 offseason to see this, as three of the players that were just mentioned are playing on expiring contracts.

Expiring Contracts

Bradley Jr.’s contract expires at season’s end, and his $11.5 million luxury-tax hit does too. His name appeared in trade buzz as recently as last week when Ken Rosenthal reported that Boston was rumored to have interest in a trade package with the San Diego Padres featuring outfielder Wil Myers.

Bradley is very much a candidate to be dealt by the club at the MLB’s July 31 trade deadline if Boston is a seller, as a divorce between the two sides seems more than likely if Bradley actually does ride out the whole season with the Red Sox.

When asked by WEEI’s Rob Bradford about the possibility of seeing the open market this offseason, Bradley showed excitement, saying he was looking forward to the opportunity to finally make a choice for himself. It seems almost inevitable that “JBJ” will don a new uniform in 2021.

In addition to Bradley, the team’s most recent signing in Pillar is also set to hit the open market after the season’s end, as the club only signed him to a one-year contract. No one knows what Pillar’s future holds in Boston, but even if he were to re-sign next offseason, Pillar does not pose as a viable option for the club’s glaring hole in center field long-term.

Pillar, 31, likely only has a maximum of three more seasons in him as an everyday starter, a role he likely won’t even hold for Boston in 2020 when Verdugo eventually returns from injury. Though he has a reliable track record when it comes to health (Pillar has appeared in 142 or more games in his five seasons as a starter), a workload of that size, combined with his gritty, hard-nosed playing style, is bound to break a player’s body down eventually, Boston’s very own Dustin Pedroia is proof of that.

Like Pillar, Martinez also has the option of hitting the open market after this season, with a player opt-out for the second season in a row. Martinez rarely plays the outfield as it is: in his two seasons with Boston, just 95 of his 295 regular-season games played with the team have come in the outfield. And when he plays the field, Martinez is by no means a top-notch fielder, he’s amassed a -12 DRS, -6.9 UZR, and -22.6 UZR/150 in his Red Sox career.

Martinez showed signs of back issues last season, so with diminishing health and an already below-average glove, fans can expect to see even more of Martinez at the DH position rather than the outfield moving forward.

So what is all of this getting at? The Red Sox have a long-term problem regarding their future in the outfield, particularly center field. The only for-sure bets to return next season (barring trade) are Andrew Benintendi and Alex Verdugo, two players who the club project to remain in left and right field respectively.

Weak Farm System

The problem doesn’t stop there. Due to the club’s depleted farm system, the Red Sox have shallow (at best) depth in the outfield throughout the organization.

In the team’s opening week of Spring Training, fans have watched Jarren Duran, an outfielder ranked seventh overall in the Red Sox farm system, enjoy success. But, Red Sox fans should be cautious to take the cheese on the 23-year-old.

Though early, it certainly has not been an easy road for the 2018 seventh-round draft pick. In 82 games with AA Portland in 2019, Duran only mustered a .290 wOBA, 1 home run, and a miserable 84/23 K/BB.

Bottom line: regardless of a good spring, Duran is not MLB-ready.

Duran does not project to be an MLB star, either. His best tool is his speed and scouts are still saying he needs to find an offensive identity. Though he could end up finding that identity, Duran is still a project, and the club should not bank on him as a long-term solution in center field.

Looking past Duran, the only other outfielder in the club’s top-ten is Gilberto Jimenez, who actually ranks two spots ahead of Duran at fifth place in the Sox farm system. The problem: Jimenez is just 19 years old, and has only worked his way up to Low-A Greenville.

Jimenez showed promise in Class A Lowell last season, posting a .402 wOBA and 158 wRC+, but he’s still only entering his third year in the system and is a very raw prospect, in large part due to his age. Boston signed him as an international free agent in 2017, and scouts said then that he was a long way away from seeing big league action. Though he’s off to a nice start, that has not changed, as Jimenez does not project to sniff big league action until 2023 or 2024, at the earliest.

After Jimenez and Duran, the only outfielder in the farm system’s top-twenty is Nick Decker, who was taken in the second round by the team in 2018. Decker, like Jimenez, is still very inexperienced and does not project to see big league action until 2023 at the earliest. His ceiling is also much lower than that of Jimenez, his player profile lists him as a “potential average player”. There’s time for that change, but if he follows that path, he likely won’t serve as a major chip for the Red Sox long-term future.

Possible Solutions

Here’s the good news, Red Sox fans: there could be time to fix this. With the contracts of Mookie Betts and David Price off the books now, Boston has a supple amount of cap space to bring in new acquisitions. Joc Pederson, George Springer, Starling Marte, and Jake Marisnick are all free agents in 2021, and the club could trade for another young asset like they did with Alex Verdugo.

Additionally, the team has a plethora of young utility infielders that are either MLB-ready or close to MLB-ready. Michael Chavis and Bobby Dalbec come to mind, neither are very good gloves and could potentially be transitioned into outfielders if needed, with Benintendi and Verdugo being serviceable enough gloves to slide into center field. Boston should not bank on this option though, finding a natural outfielder is much more desirable, this feels much more like a last-resort option if all else fails.

So while this may be an issue that isn’t worthy of the panic button, if it is not handled properly, Boston could walk out of this with some serious egg on their face. Considering his forte is identifying young talent, I would argue that this should be one of GM Brian O’Halloran’s biggest concerns, and Red Sox fans should hold him to that.




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