Editor’s note: The Red Sox will hold their first full-squad spring training workout Friday. NESN.com will analyze Boston’s roster in five installments (outfield, infield, catchers, bullpen, starting rotation) in the days leading up to that workout.
The Boston Red Sox enter spring training with questions to answer at several position groups.
Outfield is not one of them.
Few units in Major League Baseball are as locked in as the Red Sox’s outfield, which plans to roll out on Opening Day an MVP runner-up, a 26-homer center fielder with a Gold Glove and the No. 1 prospect in baseball. And did we mention all three are 26 years old or younger?
The “Three Bs” — Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi — will have lofty expectations in 2017, but if they meet their goals, they could stake their claim as the best outfield in baseball.
Let’s preview what’s in store for this trio and a solid group of platoon players and backups.
The Starters: Betts, Bradley, Benintendi
Betts’ ceiling never has been higher and with good reason. The 24-year-old put it all together in 2016, posting a .318 batting average and .897 OPS with 31 home runs and 113 RBIs to finish second in American League MVP voting behind Mike Trout. He also played an excellent right field, winning his first Gold Glove Award just three seasons after making the transition from second base. With David Ortiz out of the picture, Betts will be called upon to help fill the power void.
The same can be said for the switch-hitting Bradley, who has put up an .830 OPS or higher in back-to-back seasons. Strikeouts and consistency at the plate still are a concern for the 26-year-old center fielder, though — his 143 K’s in 2016 were a career high, and he endured some brutal slumps down the stretch. Yet Bradley’s stellar defense remains invaluable, and if he can limit his streakiness at the plate, he’ll be a dangerous threat at the bottom of Boston’s lineup.
Benintendi might be a surer thing at the plate than Bradley, a remarkable statement considering he’s played just 34 major league games. But the smooth-swinging lefty appeared to have things figured out from the get-go last season, hitting .295 with an .835 OPS in his brief MLB debut. He has a lock on the Red Sox’s starting left field job and is a way-too-early favorite for AL Rookie of the Year, as he’s still technically a rookie entering his first full season.
The Platoon Men: Chris Young, Brock Holt, Blake Swihart
If the young guns need a spell, there won’t be much of a drop-off. After a rough April, Young established himself as a strong platoon option, finishing 2016 with a .276 batting average and an .850 OPS to give manager John Farrell a solid right-handed bat when needed. His playing time should dip with Benintendi patrolling left field, but the 33-year-old is a good insurance option.
Holt continues to be Boston’s super utility man. Chances are he’ll see more playing time in the infield this season — most likely at third base — but as always, he’s capable of providing a decent bat and serviceable defense when called upon.
As mentioned, the Red Sox don’t have the same need for Swihart in the outfield now that Benintendi is around. But if the 24-year-old loses out on the catcher competition and disaster strikes the starting outfield unit, he could be sent back to the outfield as another depth option.
The Other Guys: Bryce Brentz, Rusney Castillo
This is supposed to be the “prospects” section, but after Benintendi’s call-up, all of Boston’s young outfield talent now is in the bigs.
Brentz performed well as an emergency outfielder last season, hitting .279 in 64 plate appearances for the Red Sox. But there’s a good chance he spends 2017 either in Triple-A Pawtucket or stuck on the end of Boston’s bench.
Ditto for Castillo, who appears to be down to his last strike after clearing waivers and getting outrighted to Pawtucket last summer. The 29-year-old Cuban earned a non-roster invite to spring training, but with so much young talent in front of him, it looks like his ship has sailed.
Simply put: This unit can be MLB’s best starting outfield in 2017. All three starters have incredible upside at the plate, while Bradley and Betts make this one of the game’s best defensive outfields, too. Their success is far from guaranteed — Benintendi will face more pressure than arguably any other rookie, Bradley must overcome significant offensive inconsistencies and Betts will have to follow up a career season — but the outfield is the closest thing the Red Sox have to a slam dunk.
Thumbnail photo via Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports Images