Red Sox Need Outfield Help

The end of the 2011 season does not seem to have ended the Red Sox spell of misfortune as two-thirds of their projected everyday lineup outfield is now out with injury. It was reported earlier this offseason that rightfielder Ryan Kalish would be out until at least June as he recovers from shoulder surgery. This week came that Carl Crawford will likely miss the start of the regular season due to wrist surgery. Crawford is not expected to miss a lot of playing time, but wrist injuries can linger and sap a player’s bat control for an extended period of time. That leaves the Red Sox with exactly 3 outfielders who (a) are on the 40-man roster, (b) have played an inning in MLB, and (c) project to be healthy on opening day.

Jacoby Ellsbury is a coming off a season where he posted a 9.4 WAR and is arguably the best all-around centerfielder in baseball. Newly acquired Ryan Sweeney can play in either outfield corner and Darnell McDonald is an adequate fourth outfielder. You do not need advanced statistics to see that the other outfielder on the 40-man roster — Che-Hsuan Lin — does not appear to be ready after hitting .235/.325/.293 in almost 400 plate appearances at Triple-A Pawtucket last year. Kevin Youkilis and Mike Aviles have both played in the outfield before, but neither has logged more than 25 career innings in the outfield. Youkilis is coming off an injury filled season and the Red Sox are unlikely to expose him to outfield play. Aviles is playing the outfield in winter ball, but neither right nor left field at Fenway Park is a good place for on-the-job training in outfield play. In addition, both Sweeney and McDonald have significant platoon splits. For his career, Sweeney has a .332 wOBA against righties, but only a .272 wOBA against southpaws. McDonald is almost the mirror image with a career .350 wOBA against lefties combined with a .272 against right handed pitchers. Together they make an acceptable platoon pair, but the thought of starting the season with McDonald and Sweeney manning the outfield corners is enough to keep the Fenway faithful awake at night.

What outside options do the Red Sox have? Unfortunately, at this point in the offseason the free agent market does not have a lot of great options. Incumbent right fielder J.D. Drew is still available and has considerable experience playing right field at Fenway, but there have been no rumblings that Red Sox intend to re-sign him. Cody Ross would be a good fit, but he seems to be holding out for a long term contract, which is not something the Red Sox are apt to do given that they fully anticipate Crawford and Kalish coming back during the 2012 season. A Johnny Damon reunion would be interesting, but given his defensive liabilities it is hard to see him getting much playing time after Crawford returns. As Eno Sarris pointed out earlier, there is a large grab bag of guys available. One or more of these guys would likely prove to be a good option, but predicting which one will not be easy.

The most obvious solution would be a trade for the Cubs’ Marlon Byrd. Byrd can play all three outfield positions, does not have a significant platoon split, and is in the last year of his contract. The Cubs are seemingly in rebuilding mode and may be willing to part with Byrd. In fact, many have speculated that Byrd would be a reasonable solution to the ongoing Theo Epstein compensation dispute between the Red Sox and the Cubs. Whether as part of compensation for Epstein or not, Ben Cherington should be seeking to acquire Byrd ASAP.

Byrd’s wOBA of .315 last year was his worst since 2006 and came on the heels of two consecutive years in .340 range. However, his peripherals in 2011 were not out of line with his established norms. His walk rate, strikeout rate, and BABIP were consistent with the previous two seasons, but he did miss six weeks last season after being hit in the face with a pitch. His month-by-month numbers are consistent with someone who simply wore down over the course of the season, as his wOBA was .291 in April, .401 in May, .379 in July (after the injury), .284 in August, and .238 in September. His power and BABIP also collapsed in the summer months as he slugged .286 in September with a ridiculously low .185 BABIP. It is plausible that the long layoff due to injury undermined his conditioning as Byrd noted being forced to take a three-week break from running after his surgery. Given a full offseason of conditioning his late season struggles should not be a concern moving forward.

Byrd is not an elite player, but he would help the Red Sox survive their early season injury stack, serve as a nice insurance policy if one of the Red Sox outfielders is out longer than expected, or be an excellent fourth outfielder and occasional DH against left-handed starters.

I am political science professor at the University of North Carolina. I grew up watching the Braves on TBS and acquired Red Sox fandom during the 1986 World Series. My other hobbies include cooking, good red wine, curing meats, and obsessing over Alabama football---Roll Tide! Follow me on Twitter @ProfJRoberts.