FORT MYERS, Fla. — The buzz Tuesday morning was that the Red Sox were putting their regular-season lineup out there against Northeastern.
Mostly true, but I just don’t buy that Shane Victorino, batting seventh and playing right field, will be there by April.
Victorino has about four more weeks to prove he can stay healthy, but in the meantime, the Red Sox are framing him as their starter.
Not only to show other teams that he’s healthy, but that he’s worthy of trading for. They’re trying to amp up his value because even though there will be teams interested, he makes $13 million a season, and they won’t want to take on all that salary.
It’s not that Victorino isn’t worthy of starting in right field. He’s more than worthy, with two World Series championships, four Gold Gloves, and a track record of improving every team he’s been on.
He’s one of those guys with great intangibles.
But there’s the issue of Rusney Castillo.
You don’t give a guy a seven-year contract for $72.5 million and then make him the fourth outfielder (or worse, send him to Pawtucket).
Castillo is 27 years old, major league-ready. He had a .928 OPS in his first 40 plate appearances. Sending him down or not using him as a starter means you didn’t make the right decision. The breaking-in time for Castillo was last season.
But the Red Sox are right to promote Victorino as their starting right fielder. First of all, it’s only fair to him that he doesn’t lose his job to an injury, and second, it’s only fair to him that he gets a look from the many scouts who will be watching Red Sox games this spring.
Victorino is really selling himself at this point.
Against NU, he drew a walk batting lefthanded, which he had abandoned last season after back and hamstring issues. He hit .241 righty on righty. But Victorino said he’s still a switch hitter and never chose to completely abandon it.
“The reason he went to the right side was for health reasons,” said manager John Farrell. “So as long as he feels freed up physically, we’d like to see him get a high level of at-bats lefthanded and see what evolves.”
The scouts I speak to on a regular basis all love Victorino’s desire and enthusiasm for the game. Most of them wonder whether he’s reached the stage of his career where he’ll break down more frequently than he plays. That’s what Victorino has to prove.
His name has been brought up in conjunction with Cliff Lee discussions between the Red Sox and Phillies, though it would be more of a salary dump, with Philadelphia having to get a real prospect in return, almost like the Red Sox taking on Mike Lowell back in 2006 to get Josh Beckett. Lee makes $25 million this season and $27.5 million in 2016 on a club option that can be bought out for $12.5 million.
There are teams with excess outfielders. The Red Sox could shed Victorino and Allen Craig. The Dodgers could shed Andre Ethier, but he has $54 million remaining on his contract. So Victorino, even at age 34, remains somewhat of a bargain if he stays healthy.
In Game 2 Tuesday against Boston College, Castillo started in center field and led off. The Red Sox want to see how Castillo handles leadoff. In the first inning, he singled up the middle.
Farrell has said that Castillo and Mookie Betts will alternate as center fielders, and nothing should be read into the fact that Betts started with the regulars in Game 1 and Castillo with the scrubs in Game 2.
Farrell said that Victorino will see no time in center, even though he’s a three-time Gold Glove winner there.
“Not likely,” Farrell said. “The way we’re set up, we have coverage in center with multiple options. If there is an alignment that put him in center field, he could do it. He’s so exceptional in right, we wouldn’t back ourselves in a corner.”
Victorino has said he’s not concerned about the noise outside the field. He doesn’t care that there’s trade buzz around him, or that he might not be the starter when the season begins. He’s concerned about avoiding the injury plague of last season, when every movement was painful.
When healthy, he’s a significant player and he knows it. He’s not ready to recline into a backup or complementary role. And he doesn’t care how much money they signed Castillo for. As he says, the Red Sox have 13 million reasons to keep him in the starting lineup.
True, you don’t see many $13 million players coming off the bench.
Which is why, come Opening Day in Philadelphia, the question will be, for which team will he be the starting right fielder?