Crawford Shakes Up Boston’s Outfield

A common complaint among baseball fans is that the teams with the highest payrolls will often sign the best free agents. The Boston Red Sox added some legitimacy to that notion after signing Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million deal on Thursday. While every team can use Carl Crawford’s talents, it’s not as if Boston had a gaping hole at any of their outfield spots. With Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron returning from injury-plagued seasons, and J.D. Drew manning right field; this signing didn’t really fill a need for the Red Sox.

Despite that, it’s clear that Carl Crawford represents a large upgrade over each of the Red Sox outfield options. The Red Sox can only start three outfielders, however, and this move will likely shift a very useful outfielder to the bench.

Signed as a free agent last season, Mike Cameron’s first year as a Red Sox was riddled with injuries. Cameron was only able to amass 180 plate appearances, and posted a negative UZR for only the second time in his career. Typically known as an excellent defender, it’s unclear whether last year’s struggles were a result of his injuries or signs of aging. Age is certainly a concern with Cameron (he will be 38 next season), but based on his history it would be wise to give him another chance in center field before assuming he’s finished.

When healthy, J.D. Drew is a valuable commodity. For all the criticisms about his health, Drew has played in nearly 140 games every season since he signed with the Red Sox (140, 109, 137, 139). Much like Cameron, Drew also has a reputation as an above average fielder. Drew is set to earn $14 million next season, so it’s unlikely the Red Sox would make him a part time player while paying him so much money.

That leaves Jacoby Ellsbury, who also suffered through an injury-riddled 2010. Before last season, Ellsbury was viewed as the future of Boston’s outfield. With Crawford in the picture, it’s unclear what role Ellsbury will play in 2011. Due to his contract and age, Ellsbury could be an attractive trade chip. As there likely isn’t a market for Cameron or Drew, Ellsbury is the only outfielder the Red Sox can trade that would bring in a significant haul. Both Cameron and Drew will be free agents after the season, however, so the Red Sox may not want to part with a player who still has a role in the team’s future.

Should the Red Sox keep all four of their outfielders, it’s likely that they would all receive playing time. Due to their advanced ages, Cameron and Drew could benefit from a weekly off day. This would allow Terry Francona to insert Ellsbury into the lineup 2-3 times per week. Since Drew has a history of missing games, Ellsbury would be a great injury replacement option as well.

The Red Sox do have another option that Francona should consider, however. David Ortiz has struggled against left-handed pitching over his career, leading to a .222 batting average against LHP last season. Francona could choose to sit Ortiz against lefties in favor of starting one of his outfielders as the DH. This strategy also allows Francona to keep Cameron and Drew healthy as the season progresses.

While Crawford’s signing ultimately improves the Red Sox, it could also create some tension over playing time. Even though it will be difficult to fully satisfy each player involved, Francona has some interesting options when it comes to constructing his lineup. Considering all the players involved, it’s a good problem to have.





Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

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Tim
12 years ago

Not really sure what you were getting at in the beginning of the article, but I like where it ended up. Nice piece.

Derek
12 years ago
Reply to  Chris Cwik

They did need an outfielder, just not this year, next year. Next year they would only had Jacoby signed and the top FA OFs would be Beltran and Cody Ross.

Paul SF
12 years ago
Reply to  Chris Cwik

As Derek says, this was a move for 2012 and beyond, when the Sox would have a desperate need for two outfielders (with Drew and Cameron free agents) and only one likely in-house replacement available (Ryan Kalish).

And is it truly a case of “the rich getting richer” if the team doesn’t spend any more on players in 2011 or 2012 than it did in 2010, even with these monster acquisitions?

Baltimore Joe
12 years ago
Reply to  Chris Cwik

To me the problem more or less solves itself as soon as the first guy gets any hint of an injury, which is likely to happen soon. Since Drew, Cameron, and Ells all spent time on the DL last year, it seems more than prudent to have 4 and hope that you don’t get too much overlap with the injuries. Darnell McDonald did a fine job, but better to keep some top flight talent in there.

Derek
12 years ago
Reply to  Chris Cwik

I know you wanted to write a “rich get richer” piece here. Unfortunately, there are some facts that need to be considered. As you say, both Drew and Cameron will leave following this season, so how is it that there was not a need? Do you believe it would have been wiser to pass on this all-star caliber player, available for no draft picks and wait until they were desperate? Which leads to my next point, the Sox are either going to trade Ellsbury or start him. Why would a team, with an impending void to fill in the outfield, retard the growth of an outfielder with center field capabilities whom already posts solid offensive numbers and the speed and ability to, with time, turn into a plus defender. It seems far more likely to me that Cameron is the odd man out and given that he is a righty bat, anticipate seeing him at the DH or Drews spot when the team faces tough lefties.

pinetar
12 years ago
Reply to  Chris Cwik

Its still a case of the rich get richer because most MLB teams dont get to spend 142 million this year because they will have a need a year from now. How many other teams can afford this?

B N
12 years ago
Reply to  Chris Cwik

@pinetar

Teams who can afford to make such signings? Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Phillies, Tigers, Giants, Angels, Seattle, Cardinals

In about that order. Cards could only make such signings if they didn’t already have two stars to deal with signing. Dodgers could also be added to this list, if their ownership situation wasn’t such a mess and they were bright enough to have cornered a YES/NESN type network. Giants will be in the market for a big deal like that once Zito’s weight is off their payrolls.

So… a little over 1/4 the league, approximately, can hand out a deal like this and potentially see profit.

fred
12 years ago
Reply to  Chris Cwik

BN – aren’t you demonstrating Pinetar’s point?

3/4 (or more) of the teams could not afford to hand out a 7yr/142mil contract to fill a need a year from now. Heck well over 1/2 probably couldn’t afford to this even if they had an immediate need and open payroll.

Also the teams you list who could afford this signing.. could all of them afford doing it a year early (which was pinetar’s point)? If say the Mariner think they can compete in 2013, they could hand out a 142mil contract before 2012 for a position that was filled in 2012, but opening up n 2013?

mowill
12 years ago
Reply to  Chris Cwik

Seattle has never signed a top tier free agent. That includes guys who were with the Mariners the year before. They extend guys in the prior season or they sign guys from the second tier. That will never change. No open market rates for the upper brass cheapskates.

Krog
12 years ago
Reply to  Chris Cwik

Seattle signed Adrian Beltre to a massive contract as a free agent.