A few years ago, the “win, dance, repeat” group appeared primed to roam the Fenway Park outfield for years to come.
Now, Mookie Betts is in Los Angeles, Andrew Benintendi is in Kansas City and Jackie Bradley Jr. is a free agent. Understandably, the departures of those Boston fan favorites — a Bradley reunion remains possible but reportedly is unlikely — have led fans and media to view the current Red Sox outfield through a negative lens.
We get it, but that doesn’t mean it’s fair. The reality is Boston’s new outfield is as deserving of your confidence as it is your fear.
First, let’s recap what happened last summer.
Alex Verdugo came over in the Betts trade and was awesome. Full of energy, he hit .308 with six home runs, 15 RBIs and four stolen bases while playing excellent defense all over the outfield. The majority of his starts were in right field, but he played a ton of left once Benintendi went down with a season-ending injury.
Bradley enjoyed one of his best all-around seasons, hitting .283 with seven homers while doing his usual thing in center field. Kevin Pillar also played well before the Red Sox sent him to the Rockies in August.
With Benintendi having only played 14 games and Pillar in Colorado, the Red Sox outfield — particularly right field — became a mess, and there was a trickle-down effect. Overall, a whopping 10 players saw time in the outfield last year for Boston. The instability and lagging production resulted in underwhelming statistics.
Here’s where the Red Sox outfield ranked last season in various statistical categories, via FanGraphs:
FanGraphs WAR: 2.3 (16th)
FanGraphs offensive rating: -0.5 (19th)
FanGraphs defensive rating: 1.1 (5th)
Batting average: .262 (5th)
On-base percentage: .326 (16th)
Slugging percentage: .416 (17th)
Home Runs: 23 (25th)
Just imagine what those numbers would’ve looked like if either Verdugo or Bradley struggled or missed extended time.
But there’s reason to hope (note: not believe) things will be better this year. (Also, we’re going to proceed as if Bradley will not be on the roster.)
The player everyone will be watching is Franchy Cordero, who should get every opportunity to be the primary left fielder. Acquired in the Benintendi trade, Cordero is an athletic, uber-talented player who remains a mystery through 95 career big league games.
Some in baseball believe he’s Joey Gallo 2.0; others remain convinced he’ll never fulfill his vast potential. The Red Sox, obviously banking on the former scenario, believe they can get the most out of the 26-year-old’s elite speed and massive power.
Most expect Verdugo to start the season in center field. He might have the talent and fearless mindset required to excel in the face of inevitable Betts comparisons.
In right field, 29-year-old newcomer Hunter Renfroe could be a great fit. He struggled last year with the Tampa Bay Rays, but he hit .231 while averaging 28 homers and 63 RBIs per season over the previous three campaigns with the San Diego Padres. A right-handed batter who mashes lefties, Renfroe will need to prove capable of hitting righties if he wants to play every day.
And then there’s switch-hitter Marwin Gonzalez, a player who’s played every position other than catcher and pitcher over his nine-year career. The Red Sox will use him all over the diamond, particularly at the corner outfield spots. Gonzalez, who hit .303 with 23 homers in 2017, has the offensive ability to be a real asset for manager Alex Cora, who will be tasked with finding the proper positional mix and matchups to exploit.
Extra depth will come in the form of Enrique “Kike” Hernandez, who enters spring training as the favorite to win the second base job. Also a “superutility” player, Hernandez made starts at every outfield position last year for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
We’ll see if Michael Chavis and/or Yairo Munoz make the team, let alone carve out roles in the outfield.
If you’re someone who loves Bradley, believes Benintendi was due for a breakout season, doubts Cordero’s talent and thinks, “Who is Hunter Renfroe?” then you probably will be down on this outfield until it proves you wrong, if it ever does.
Us? We are sold on Verdugo, think Benintendi needed a change of scenery, are cautiously optimistic about Cordero and believe Renfroe and Gonzalez could form a great right field platoon.
We’re not telling you it will look like it did in 2018 (the Red Sox might never replicate that excellence), but we are telling you this group could exceed expectations. We also cite Boston’s Nos. 4, 5 and 16 prospects all being center fielders as reason for optimism. More on one of them in just a minute.
All that being said, you could construct a fairly even pro-con chart for this outfield. As hopeful as we are for strong results, we acknowledge it wouldn’t take much for this thing to go sideways.
With spring training finally here, let’s go over our best- and worst-case scenarios, plus an x factor, for the 2021 Red Sox outfield.
Let’s go left to right.
Cordero battles through inevitable struggles and hits well enough to stick in left field. Considering his inexperience, it’s difficult to settle on optimistic stat predictions, but let’s say he hits .240 with 20-plus homers and 15 stolen bases — roughly his current 162-game average.
In center, Verdugo builds upon his excellent Boston debut and plays at an All-Star level. We think there’s more power in that bat than he’s shown, and we believe 25 homers are attainable.
Cora finds just the right mix between Renfroe and Gonzalez, with the former hitting 20-plus homers and the latter making the most of what likely will be many opportunities.
Oh, and a top prospect at some point forces his way onto the big league roster.
The scary thing? All of this is at least somewhat realistic.
Cordero, who hit .211 in 16 games last year, is a total bust and proves why he’s played sparingly at the major league level the last four years. His Baseball-Reference page does look like this, after all:
Consequently, Gonzalez has to play a ton of left field and is just OK.
Verdugo plays well but not that well. He hits under .300 and shows more gap power than over-the-fence power.
Renfroe never quite uses the Green Monster to his advantage and is little more than an average offensive player. He goes through a prolonged slump and loses Cora’s confidence.
No prospect plays well enough in the minors to earn a spot in an underperforming big league outfield.
The 2018 seventh-round pick was drafted as a second baseman but since has moved to center field. He still needs to work on his outfield instincts, but his game-changing speed helps mask his flaws.
In 2019, Duran used his speed and contact-hitting abilities to hit .387 over 50 games with Single-A Salem. He struggled upon his promotion to Double-A Portland but eventually settled in to hit .250 with one homer over 82 games with the Sea Dogs. Evaluators feared there that his bat lacked enough pop to be a difference-maker in the majors.
Duran made a swing adjustment the ensuing offseason and was excellent during (the first) spring training. With the minor league season canceled, Duran went to the alternative training site in Pawtucket and flat-out dominated, showing power to all fields. He continued to excel while playing in the Puerto Rican Winter League.
Now, Duran is the No. 4 prospect in the system and is featured on some overall top 100 lists. Many view him as the center fielder of the future.
So, let’s see what happens at spring training. Most expect Duran, 24, to begin the year in Double-A, with a late-season promotion possible, if for no other reason than to utilize his excellent speed.
But what if he dominates in Fort Myers? What if he’s so good early in the season that Boston has no choice but to call him up? Big “ifs,” to be sure.
Obviously, Duran claiming center field sometime this season would change everything.