Lineup cards proved unnecessary to follow the Red Sox outfield from 2017-19.
In each of those three seasons, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, and Andrew Benintendi trotted out to their primary positions at least 120 times. Now all three are gone — replaced by a revamped defensive unit that might not feature a single player who spends as many as 120 games at any one outfield position.
In the wake of Bradley’s two-year, $24 million agreement with the Brewers this week, no one with the Red Sox pretended that his departure wouldn’t be felt.
“I don’t want to put our guys down that we have. [But] I definitely don’t want to say, ‘Oh yeah, we can definitely replace Jackie Bradley Jr.,’” said Red Sox first base and outfield coach Tom Goodwin. “We’ll miss Jackie tremendously.
“But, we know that as a team and organization, it’s time to move on and make sure these guys are ready to go. That’s what we’re leading up to … I’m very excited about the crew we have here.”
Goodwin and the Sox staff will deploy a long list of players to different spots in the outfield. “Versatility” and “flexibility” have been buzzwords of the Sox spring, a reflection of the multi-positional shape-shifting that permits several members of the roster to feel comfortable on multiple parts of the field.
“We’re not going to have a set lineup and we’re going to have moving parts the whole season,” said manager Alex Cora. “These guys defensively, wherever you put them, they’re average or above average, so that’s going to make it easier for us to do this.”
The Sox do not have what might be characterized as a true center fielder — one of the truly elite defensive outfielders in the game who anchors the middle of the grass. But they believe they have enough fast, athletic, and, yes, versatile players to provide capable outfield defense and numerous matchup and platoon options.
“I think we have a number of players in this group who are really capable outfielders, who can cover ground and make plays. From that standpoint, it’s a great feeling,” said Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “It gives Alex options and it gives us options to make sure we’re supporting our pitchers the way we need to.”
For all of the deficiencies of the 2020 Red Sox, outfield performance wasn’t one of them. The combination of Bradley in center field and Verdugo in either left or right, along with Kevin Pillar through the end of August, helped the team to do a good job of chasing down anything hit in the air.
“We played outstanding,” said Goodwin, who described it as a “sock in the gut” that neither Bradley nor Verdugo was nominated for a Gold Glove.
According to Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric — which broadly measures the number of balls caught relative to those that would be caught by an average player, based chiefly on the hang time and required distance to cover from a starting position — the Sox outfield saved eight outs and five runs last year, both among the top third of teams in the majors.
But Bradley accounted for much of that, getting credit for saving seven more outs than an average outfielder, fourth best in the majors.
So how might the Sox line up in Bradley’s absence?
Primary options: Alex Verdugo, Kiké Hernández
Other possibilities: Hunter Renfroe, Franchy Cordero
Prospect of note: Jarren Duran
Last year, in his Red Sox debut, Verdugo split his time between the outfield corners. But before being traded to Boston last year, he’d spent time in all three outfield spots with the Dodgers. The bulk of his work in Los Angeles was in center field, where he’d been roughly average in terms of converting balls in the air into outs. Moreover, like Bradley, Verdugo has one of the better outfield arms in the game, meaning his skill set could make him a slightly above-average center fielder.
Verdugo is likely to get the lion’s share of playing time in center for the Sox — but he might not be the team’s best defensive center fielder. While Hernández will spend most of his time at second, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him in center against lefties with Verdugo moving to right.
Such an alignment would reflect the fact that Hernández is considered an above-average defensive center fielder with good range and a strong arm, and that Verdugo is comfortable in right field, especially at Fenway. According to Red Sox analyst Greg Rybarczyk, there’s nearly as much ground to patrol in right at Fenway (31,200 square feet) as there is in center (33,200).
In 2019, when Verdugo and Hernández were Dodgers teammates, they were in the same lineup as outfielders six times. Hernández was the center fielder in five of those games, with Verdugo in the middle just once.
Renfroe and Cordero have experience at all three outfield positions, but are viewed as fallback options. Since the start of 2019, all of Duran’s time in the outfield has been played exclusively at center, a position probably best suited for his elite speed and average to below-average arm. It wouldn’t be a shock if he takes over the position sometime this year.
Primary options: Renfroe, Verdugo, Hernández, Cordero
Other possibilities: J.D. Martinez, Marwin González, Cesar Puello, Michael Gettys
At 6 feet 1 inch and 230 pounds, Renfroe looks like a prototypical left fielder/first baseman. But the Sox signed him because in addition to his considerable power, he also has above-average speed, gets slightly better-than-average jumps, and possesses a strong arm — traits the team expects to result in above-average defense in both corners. As long as Renfroe — who has significantly better numbers against lefties than righties — can hold his own against righties, he’ll see a lot of time in right.
On days when Verdugo or Hernández land in right, they’ll represent above-average options. Cordero is a wild card. In the past, he’s had the speed and arm to play all three outfield spots. But the oft-injured 26-year-old’s speed has degraded and he takes circumnavigatory routes that reduce his range, making him best suited for left.
When not slotted in as designated hitter, Martinez has spent slightly more time in right than left with the Red Sox — especially outside of Fenway in parks with limited right field real estate (Camden Yards, Yankee Stadium). He’s more comfortable with the reads in right than left. His lack of speed renders him best suited for the smaller corner in any park on those days when the Sox want to use him in the outfield. The same is true of González.
Non-roster invitees Puello and Gettys both represent strong defensive options should the Sox need to add a player.
Primary options: Cordero, González, Renfroe
Other options: Martinez, Danny Santana, Puello, Gettys, Michael Chavis
Cordero likely will see most of his playing time in left, and assuming he’s healthy, as a lefthanded platoon player he’d probably get the majority of starts at the position. If he’s unavailable, the switch-hitting González likely would get his starts in left field against righties.
Against lefthanded starters, the Sox could move Renfroe to left with the combination of Verdugo and Hernández in center and right, respectively. That’s probably the team’s best defensive outfield, and a combination that a National League evaluator viewed as being well above average (all three have above-average speed and arms and get above-average jumps), with the Cordero/Verdugo/Renfroe triumvirate grading as roughly average.
The switch-hitting Santana, who agreed to a minor league deal Thursday, has played average or better defense in left and center in the past. He’s fast enough to play either position, but his recovery from September surgery on his right (throwing) elbow will determine at which positions he can provide depth.