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around the horn | outfield

In the outfield, Red Sox found the right combination, but they aren’t locked in

By the time the stretch run of 2021 came around, the Red Sox had settled on an outfield of (left to right) Alex Verdugo, Kiké Hernández, and Hunter Renfroe.John Tlumacki

The Red Sox outfield in 2021 wasn’t the elite group that patrolled Fenway Park in years past. Not even close.

At the end of the 2018 World Series run, it wasn’t ridiculous to predict Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi could go down as one of the greatest outfields in franchise history.

Yet just over a year later, Betts was traded to the Dodgers. Following a shortened 2020 season, Benintendi was traded to the Royals. Bradley found a home with the Brewers in free agency last year. Each ended up as a Gold Glove finalist in 2021.

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But the Red Sox had something on the horizon. No, their 2021 outfield didn’t feature the same defensive prowess, nor an MVP-type player like Betts. Nevertheless, it was serviceable, with Hunter Renfroe, Kiké Hernández, and Alex Verdugo serving as the club’s best alignment.

This rendition worked to some degree, yet it brought hiccups along the way.

At the start of the season, the Red Sox thought they could platoon in the outfield. They wanted to be flexible, playing matchups. Franchy Cordero, who was part of the Benintendi trade, was a tantalizing talent who had yet to put it together. The Red Sox believed they could help tap that talent.

In his first season in Boston, Hunter Renfroe made an impact with the glove and his bat.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

Renfroe, who had been designated for assignment by the Rays following the 2020 season, made an impression during spring training, but he wasn’t solidified as an everyday starter. Marwin Gonzalez, a veteran presence, was a switch hitter the Sox thought they could maximize in certain situations, playing him in left field in addition to up the middle.

“The fact that he’s a switch hitter, it gives us balance as far as the roster,” manager Alex Cora said of Gonzalez during spring training. “We’ve got a lot of versatile guys and we’ve been talking about this the whole offseason. Just being creative, right? People talk about creative teams and how cool it is. Well, we have a cool team too.”

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Cool, though, had those players learning on the job. Cordero and Gonzalez ultimately were designated for assignment, with Cordero making it through waivers. Danny Santana, another player the Sox thought would give them outfield flexibility, hit .181 in 127 plate appearances.

The Sox initially thought Verdugo could handle center field. But that turned out to be a struggle because of some bad reads and his inability to play the tricky Fenway walls in the alleys. It was clear his strength was at the corners, mainly left field.

So as Renfroe began to prove himself to be an everyday player, and Hernández graded out as a plus center fielder, it was clear that the Sox had to go with stability over flexibility. Renfroe took over full-time in right field, Hernández commanded center, while Verdugo was able to shift back to left.

That configuration put the Sox in the best position to win ballgames, and what that looks like going forward is certainly enticing.

Verdugo proved himself a solid foundational piece, hitting .289 with 13 homers and a .777 OPS.

Alex Verdugo ripped 13 homers in 2021.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Renfroe had a breakout year, batting .259 with 31 homers to go along with a .816 OPS. He too was a Gold Glove finalist, tying for most outfield assists in the majors with 16. (He also had 12 errors, which led all outfielders).

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Renfroe made just $3.1 million in his first year of arbitration, and almost certainly will double that in 2022. Perhaps even more than double it. Renfroe has been an up-and-down player in his career, but maybe the Red Sox feel he has found something in Boston.

Hernández will be in the second year of a two-year, $14 million deal. The Sox will assess the situation, but it’s clear he’s still their best option in center with Jarren Duran a work-in-progress.

“No secret in this room when we signed him, we didn’t see him being our everyday center fielder down the stretch,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said of Hernández. “But that ended up being our best team. And because of the different things he can do, it worked out for us. So it gives us options going into the offseason.”

The Duran scenario might be the Sox’ biggest outfield question mark heading into 2022. They brought him up in July, but he largely underperformed, batting .215 with 40 strikeouts in 112 plate appearances. He looked a bit unsure in center field with some of his reads, too.

When it became clear the Sox were in a pennant race at the end of August, they sent Duran back to Triple A Worcester.

How Duran improves and adjusts will dictate, to some degree, what the Sox do with their outfield in 2022. Yet the thought of him being an everyday player even with some of those improvements might be tough, considering the output the Sox get with Hernández in center and a healthy Christian Arroyo at second.

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There are an intriguing number of outfield free agents, including Nick Castellanos, Mark Canha, Starling Marte, and Eddie Rosario. Castellanos or Marte would require the Sox to dig into their pockets, but Rosario and Canha are intriguing options.

Canha has the ability to play both infield and outfield. In 2019, he hit .273 with 26 homers and a .396 on-base percentage. He had a down year in 2021, batting just .231, but still was able to produce a .358 on-base.

Could Jarren Duran be a part of the mix in 2022?Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Rosario was the breakout star of the postseason with the Braves, earning MVP of the National League Championship Series after hitting .560. He just turned 30 and is a career .275 hitter.

Internally, the Sox still have a number of solid options. It might not be the outfield of Betts, Benintendi, and Bradley; that’s hard to come by. Yet they have depth, and players who proved that stability more than flexibility can be a key to success.

Outfield

Primary 2021 starters: RF Hunter Renfroe, CF Kiké Hernández, LF Alex Verdugo.

Projected 2022 starters: RF Hunter Renfroe, CF Kiké Hernández, LF Alex Verdugo.

Major league depth: Jeisson Rosario, Jarren Duran, Tim Locastro, Franchy Cordero, Yairo Muñoz.

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Prospects to watch: Gilberto Jimenez, Tyler McDonough, Nick Decker.

Read the rest of the Around the Horn series



Julian McWilliams can be reached at julian.mcwilliams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @byJulianMack.