I will start this column by saying that I will not mention, beyond this paragraph, that the Red Sox sorely miss Jacoby Ellsbury and won’t be able to truly replace him.
So let’s move on to this: How can the Sox improve what has been an outfield in shambles to start the 2014 campaign?
One solution is to make a trade, but that’s tough right now because it’s way too early for teams to be giving up on their players.
The Red Sox could use another power-hitting outfielder — and forget Giancarlo Stanton for the time being, as he’s not going anywhere until at least this offseason, when the Marlins can determine whether they can sign him long term, which they’d be crazy not to, if possible.
The Red Sox had a chance to deal for Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp in the offseason, but the risk was too high as Kemp recovered from ankle surgery. He’s recovered, but entered Wednesday hitting only .196.
Nothing should be read into this, but the Dodgers and Marlins were scouting the Red Sox Wednesday night at Fenway.
At some point, if the outfield malaise and non-production continues, the Sox need to do something drastic. The left field platoon of Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava, which produced more than 100 RBIs last season, has fizzled to the point at which Nava was optioned to Pawtucket Wednesday.
The Red Sox entered Wednesday night’s game against the Yankees with Grady Sizemore hitting .213 and on a 0-for-13 streak, Jackie Bradley Jr. hitting .228, Mike Carp at .250 (but on an 0-for-7 skid), and Gomes at .213 (.150 vs. lefties).
The outfielders had hit for a combined .209 average with six homers and 24 RBIs. Their left fielders ranked 27th in baseball with a .200 average, two homers, and 11 RBIs. Center fielder had a .225 average, one homer, and five RBIs. Right fielders had a .205 average with three homers and eight RBIs.
So we come to the hope, the savior, Shane Victorino.
He is likely due back in the lineup by Thursday, and the theory goes that with him, the Red Sox outfield finally will stabilize.
Victorino is a high-intensity player, and brings energy, speed, and great defense to the team. If he can do all of that in a hurry, it will be quite a boost for the Red Sox.
The Red Sox have not gotten the big boost they thought they might out of Sizemore. Perhaps the best is yet to come (he tripled and scored in the first inning Wednesday night), but they already have moved him out of center field and insist he’s a better corner outfielder at this stage of his career. And that conversion hasn’t been seamless, as he’s misjudged some balls. He played a very deep right field Tuesday against the Yankees and let a ball drop in for a hit after a shoe-string attempt.
Manager John Farrell addressed Sizemore’s comeback and how difficult the process has been.
“It depends if you compare it back to ’05 and ’06 compared to where he is now,” Farrell said. “This is a guy that’s gone through a lot. But we still feel like he’s going to be an above-average hitter. Of late, he hasn’t had much to show for it.”
The Red Sox have decided Bradley is their center fielder, and with Victorino they now will recreate, at least defensively, the Ellsbury-Victorino dynamic of last year. With Sizemore in left, it should be a decent combination that should cover a lot of ground.
Bradley has shown off his arm, but as Farrell pointed out, it can also be erratic, with a couple of misthrows Tuesday night. Not all of his reads in center have been pinpoint, but he’s the best the Red Sox have right now.
The bigger question is how much will Bradley hit? He’s trying to get used to how major league pitchers have adapted their pitch selection to exploit the weaknesses in his swing.
Teams must wait as young players get through their growing pains offensively. Bradley seems to have the right approach at the plate. He sees a lot of pitches, tries to take his walks, but he’s also overmatched at times. One would think that would only improve with experience.
Then there’s the strange case of Nava.
He is the epitome of what the Red Sox stand for — patient, grinding at-bats — but suddenly that went away. Nava’s great story has now taken an unfortunate twist.
Sometimes players feel they reach the point at which they don’t have to worry about ever going back down to the minors again. Unfortunately, when you have minor league options remaining and less than five years in the majors, you’re always vulnerable to that.
Nava was the guy you could always depend on for an excellent at-bat. It just didn’t happen this season. At times he tried to change his approach, swinging earlier in the count. Not a bad approach and an attempt on his part to break the pattern, knowing pitchers always seem to throw him first-pitch fastballs.
His walk ratio was 11 percent last season after 22 games and 8 percent this year. His strikeout percentage this season was 22.7 percent, compared with 17.6 percent last season.
There were 24 batters who hit .300 or better in the majors last season; Nava was No. 18 at .303. He had the 15th-best OBP at .385. And he’s now in the minors. It’s a testament to how badly things have gone for the Red Sox.
“As you might expect, he was disappointed,” Farrell said of Nava’s reaction to being sent down. “I can’t say it was disbelief, but it was a disappointing message to deliver, given his role last year and the contributions. But in combination with the need of another reliever, while not liking it or maybe, deep down into agreeing with it, he knew it was a necessity.”
So there was a breakdown in the outfield. The grind-it-out guy, Nava, was no longer effective. The left field platoon no longer worked. The rookie center fielder has had trouble hitting. The comebacking outfielder hasn’t made a full return after missing two seasons.
Sometimes you just can’t replicate the past. Sometimes you have to move forward in a completely different direction.
If Victorino can’t save the day, the Red Sox probably have to start thinking outside the organization.
The outfield just doesn’t look the same. And we can start with the free agent loss of . . . ah, I stopped myself. But you know who.