After a flurry of moves over the last week and a half, the Red Sox roster appears to have taken shape. With agreements to sign free agents Martín Pérez, Garrett Richards, and Kiké Hernández, and the Yankee swap for Adam Ottavino, the Red Sox spread a succession of midsized, short-term bets across the table to address their most obvious holes, save for one.
Jackie Bradley Jr. remains a free agent, and while he’s certain to find a home in the coming weeks, it’s likely going to be a new one. Barring an unexpected development — a payroll-clearing trade or a decision to spend past the $210 million luxury-tax threshold — the Sox seem almost certain to move on from the defensive wizard who anchored center field for them over most of the past seven seasons.
Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom didn’t say such a thing outright after the Ottavino trade, but he hardly sounded like someone who expected the Sox to re-sign the 30-year-old Bradley.
“We continue to stay in touch with him and have been this entire time,” said Bloom. “I expect we’ll continue to until his free agency resolves.”
So, where does that leave the Red Sox’ center-field situation?
As things stand, the most likely scenario will have Alex Verdugo as the primary center fielder to open the season; in a best-case scenario, that will represent a bridge to the future at the position.
Verdugo played just one game in center last year, as he was deployed chiefly in the corners and especially right field. But with the Dodgers in 2019, he started more games in center (52) than right (16) or left (14).
He proved capable at the position, grading as slightly above average in two of the publicly available advanced defensive metrics (Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved) and average according to Statcast’s Outs Above Average measurement. The Dodgers didn’t seem to suffer when Verdugo patrolled center, going 34-18 (.654) in his 52 starts — in line with the team’s winning percentage over the other 110 games.
Verdugo has the physical tools for the position. His arm is elite and his speed is well above average. Statcast placed him in the 98th percentile in outfield jumps in 2020, suggesting the sort of reads and instincts that are essential in center.
“There’s no reason he cannot play center field,” said Tigers bench coach George Lombard, who was the first base and outfield coach with the Dodgers when Verdugo played center. “I remember having the debate [about Verdugo’s position] with the Dodgers. Everybody in that room thought he could play that position.
“I can see him [for the long term] in right field and just locking it down with the plus-plus arm and getting someone with maybe more elite speed than Verdugo to play center. But I completely trust him to be in center field, to catch the ball, and to throw the ball where it’s supposed to be thrown.”
Though the Red Sox are hoping to use Hernández primarily at second base, it’s worth noting that in four games when both he and Verdugo started in the outfield, Hernández played center. That’s a testament to how good Hernández is, rather than a slight against Verdugo.
“It’s all natural ability,” Lombard said of Hernández. “[Hernández and Verdugo] get on the ball quick and you can trust them to make plays. They both have very good hands and elite arms.”
But if all goes well for the Red Sox, Verdugo would be a placeholder at the position. Despite the absence of a minor league season in 2020, Jarren Duran had the most eye-opening performance of any prospect in the system. Already gifted with elite speed and excellent hand-eye coordination, Duran made some mechanical adjustments in his swing to dig into untapped power reserves.
The results — 8 homers at the alternate site in Pawtucket, an MVP performance (5 for 15, 2 doubles, 2 homers, 3 walks, 1 strikeout, 1 steal) for Caguas in the final round of the Puerto Rican Winter League playoffs — were dazzling, and they illuminated the sense of possibility surrounding the 24-year-old, who shifted from a college career at second base to the outfield after the Red Sox drafted him in 2018.
“I think he’s close [to big league-ready],” said Red Sox quality control coach Ramón Vázquez, who managed Caguas. “I think defensively he’s probably ready. He is as good as it gets running the bases. As good as Mookie Betts was running the bases with us, I’ve got him in that category.
“When he’s ready to go, he’s going to be a plus defender. He’s got a good arm, plus speed, plus power.
“Trying to compare guys, Jacoby Ellsbury was a guy we had in the organization a long time ago. I see him doing something like that. Offensively, I think he’s going to hit. I think he’s a guy who will have the ability to hit 25-30 home runs and he’ll hit 40 doubles because of his speed.
“I think he’s going to be a really good offensive player with plus defense. As far as how far away, I couldn’t tell you.”
While others see his future home run totals as more likely landing in the teens, Duran features the sort of balanced skill set to be a difference-maker — albeit with a likely need for finishing touches. His elite speed masks routes that require greater refinement. He’s working to gain greater discipline to swing at pitches he can drive rather than just put in play.
The absence of a 2020 minor league season and the 400 or 500 additional plate appearances he would have had in competitive games rather than intrasquads, Vázquez noted, clouds Duran’s big league ETA. Sox officials largely agree, with most expecting that he’ll get a long look in spring training but with a high likelihood that he’ll open the year in Triple A.
In a Zoom session with the Worcester Red Sox booster club Monday, Bloom described it as a “safe bet … [Duran] will get some time at Polar Park this year.”
Still, Duran’s big league future is coming into focus. The Sox seem inclined to keep a path open for him in center field, which helps explain their comfort with a short-term answer such as Verdugo for the start of the season.