With all the Red Sox talk about who's not on the field — namely, the team's entire projected starting outfield — it's gone a little bit unnoticed that the guys who are filling out the lineup card on a daily basis are doing pretty darn well for themselves.
Coming in to Tuesday's series opener at Fenway against the Miami Marlins, the offense is one thing that Sox fans have no right to complain about. Even with all the injuries, the team ranks second in Major League Baseball with 330 runs scored, ninth with a .327 on base percentage, and fifth with a .437 slugging percentage.
Everybody knows that Cody Ross, Carl Crawford, and Jacoby Ellsbury are missing in action, and have been for quite a while. But how about giving it up for their replacements, the likes of Daniel Nava, Scott Podsednik and Ryan Sweeney — none of whom figured to be playing such prominent roles for the team back in Spring Training — who have been performing at an elite level that no one had any right to expect of them.
After having toiled in the minors for the entire 2011 season, Podsednik now owns a .370 batting average through 19 games played. The 29-year-old, quintessential 4-A player Nava has also been a revelation for the Sox, posting a .919 OPS while regularly manning left field for about a month's worth of games.
Extra outfielder Sweeney just went to the disabled list, while Ryan Kalish and Darnell McDonald just came off of it. On top of all of these names, Jason Repko is currently working his way back on a rehab assignment.
In short, the Red Sox have a lot of bodies ready — or soon to be ready — to take up space in the Fenway outfield, and that outfield isn't big enough for everybody. Even the bench may not be big enough to contain all those bats.
So who keeps getting regular at bats? Who might be staring down another stint in Pawtucket?
Right now, the only sure thing in the Red Sox' outfield game of music chairs is that, when he's healthy and ready, Ellsbury will play every day in center field. Ellsbury rightfully should have won the AL MVP award last season, he's the Sox' catalyst at the top of the order and one of baseball's biggest talents.
Beyond Ellsbury, however, the outfield situation gets much, much murkier. It stands to reason that Crawford will have an opportunity to play himself into a regular role. Nava and Podsednik may have played well enough to encroach on Crawford's playing time a bit, but just the fact that the former Tampa Bay Ray is owed just over $100 million beyond this year will be enough to earn him a starting role upon his return — even as frustrating as his Red Sox career has been thus far.
That leaves right field, and the situation gets even dicier to hash out. In large part, the decision will come down to what hitters the Sox want to get in to the lineup, whether or not the team sees Adrian Gonzalez as a viable outfielder and the future of Kevin Youkilis in a Boston uniform. If Crawford manages to stick in left field, then that leaves seven names (Ross, Nava, McDonald, Podsednik, Kalish, Youkilis and Will Middlebrooks) all to fight for one slot in the lineup.
Even if the team deems that it doesn't want to continue putting Gonzalez in the outfield — though that would yield the most and deepest lineup options — it still leaves five of the six of Ross, Nava, Podsednik, Sweeney, McDonald and Kalish to fight for playing time coming off the bench, a scenario where the numbers don't add up. As good as they have all been, the Red Sox can't afford to keep five backup outfielders.
That means at least two or three of those six players will likely be relegated to Pawtucket, through absolutely no fault of their own. It's an unenviable position as a player, but a very enviable one for the Red Sox.
It's difficult to imagine Podsednik and Nava going back down after the way they've played. However, thoroughly complicating matters is the fact that McDonald is out of options, meaning he can refuse an assignment to the minors. Kalish is probably the wild card in that group, as he has minor league options remaining, but likewise the team is probably about ready to see what it can get out of the 24-year-old.
The Red Sox clearly have a problem on their hands, and there are going to be some hard, final decisions to be made once Ellsbury and Crawford make their returns, with Ross set to get back into the fold on Tuesday. However, it's the best kind of problem for a baseball club: too many capable players.
So, while Ellsbury will get his starts in center, the way Nava, Podsednik and the rest of the Red Sox fill-ins have played, at-bats are going to have to be found in the crowded Fenway outfield.