JUPITER, Fla. — There are less than two weeks before Opening Day, and the Red Sox’ outfield situation is just as complex as it was six weeks ago.
There are six outfielders for five spots.
A seventh, Jackie Bradley Jr., who played Gold Glove-caliber center field last season, has started to hit after batting just .198 in 2014. There seems to be no place for him except Pawtucket.
An eighth, Brock Holt, likely will see most of his time backing up in the infield.
A ninth, Bryce Brentz, will be playing left field in Pawtucket.
Rusney Castillo, who was slowed early in camp by an oblique strain, has made a good impression since his return, but now Mookie Betts is the starting center fielder/leadoff hitter and Castillo is battling Shane Victorino for playing time in right.
A platoon in right? Ah, yeah, until Victorino declared he wasn’t hitting lefthanded any more because of the wear and tear on his body. So now he’s exclusively a righthanded hitter, like Castillo. In fact, five of the six outfielders are righthanded. Only Daniel Nava bats left.
So it’s Hanley Ramirez in left. Betts in center. Victorino in right.
Castillo, Nava, and Allen Craig in reserve.
Ah yes, Allen Craig.
Craig seems to be hitting better than the impostor who invaded his body last season and hit .128 for the Red Sox after being traded by the Cardinals. Scouts have watched him closely. The Giants, who could use a righthanded-hitting outfielder, have been around every day. Giants assistant general manager Bobby Evans said there were inquiries made to the Red Sox in the offseason, before Hunter Pence was injured.
Craig hasn’t lit it up, but he hasn’t stunk, either. He has played a lot, working hard to regain the sweet swing that made him one of the more dangerous National League hitters.
So that’s the thing: Do you really want to trade the guy and have him look good elsewhere, or do you hold on to him and try to get him at-bats at DH, first base, and in the outfield?
Realistically, though, how can you expect to do that unless someone gets hurt (Mike Napoli has been sidelined with right ankle soreness), especially with Craig being righthanded?
As for Castillo, a $72.5 million player has to play, doesn’t he?
Maybe the Red Sox are thinking that Victorino will need down time because his body gets sore a lot. And while we really don’t know how good Castillo is, when he has played, he has been productive. He hit .333 in 40 plate appearances in September, and this spring, he homered, tripled, singled, and walked in a span of five plate appearances. So the talent is there.
Talent is always a good thing, but at some point it could also become a distraction if there’s little playing time for outfielders who think they should be playing.
Victorino has every right to think he should be playing right field every day. He’s a four-time Gold Glove outfielder, and an outstanding right fielder in particular. He adds energy and spark to the starting lineup, which currently consists of seven righthanded batters, one lefthanded batter (David Ortiz), and one switch hitter (Pablo Sandoval). Both catchers are also righthanded hitters.
Should Castillo, who is 27 and should be entering his prime years, be coming off the bench? Defensively, you would replace only Ramirez in the late innings, and if he’s decent out there, you probably wouldn’t do even that.
John Farrell brought up the question himself: “When does a good problem become a problem?”
The manager added, “We have to take these next few days of camp and determine what’s best for us as an organization. I’m not suggesting there’s player movement, but there’s only three spots and really two coming off the bench.
“What that means for the final Opening Day roster remains to be seen, but we’re trying to get more exposure on Rusney in right field. We’re trying to get a better gauge of Vic’s durability if we can in the coming days.
“We acknowledge that there was going to be a lot of focus on our outfield. That hasn’t changed. But what we’ve seen are encouraging things like Rusney coming back to show us timing at the plate. What Mookie has done speaks for itself.”
Asked if he knew in his own mind how it would all play out, Farrell said, “I have a pretty good idea, but I can’t go into it with blinders. We’re all weighing in on this to come to the right decision on April 6.
“The one thing we can’t avoid is that Shane is coming off back surgery, so he’s not 100 percent right now. We said Shane Victorino healthy is our starting right fielder. We haven’t come off that. We’re still in the process of him regaining quickness and running speed. What’s his overall durability and how many games can we plan for?”
We interpret that as meaning there’s a chance Victorino could start on the disabled list, letting him get stronger with minor league at-bats. Victorino might oppose this idea, though.
“With Daniel’s role, it’ll be consistent to what he’s been with,” said Farrell. “A very different role for Allen Craig, though. We’ve outlined the scenario. We’ve imparted on Allen, let’s focus on spring training, regular at-bats, just to achieve a level of performance he’s accustomed to.
“He’s in great shape. The foot [injury] isn’t an issue.”
That seems to mean: Get his value up with a good camp and maybe he’ll be traded.
Farrell also didn’t dismiss Holt seeing action in the outfield, particularly if the manager wants to get good matchups.
“We have no reservations about Brock in the outfield,” said Farrell. “There could be a day where we see Hanley, Brock, and Daniel in the starting outfield.”
What does this show?
“We have good players,” Farrell said.
But can they be managed and understand their roles?
If the Red Sox can’t move Craig, or if Victorino or Castillo balks at the DL, will it be disruptive?
That’s when a good problem becomes just a problem.