The Sox are heading into this offseason with three major areas of need: starting pitching, first base, and the outfield. The exclusivity window with free agents has come and gone, and the Sox find themselves with two wide-open corner outfield spots. Luckily, they have a healthy amount of external and internal options to fill these holes, and with a ton of money available to spend, the Red Sox should be able to find an outfield combination that is affordable, productive, and that doesn’t alter their future plans.
I don’t see the Red Sox trading Jacoby Ellsbury this offseason unless the price is very, very right, so he’s pretty much a lock for center field to start the season. I say (of course, barring the possible proposal of a can’t-say-no type of trade) hold on to Ellsbury and evaluate where the team is at around the trade deadline. If they’re out of contention, obviously it’d make sense to move him to a contender.
I get the feeling that fans are really pulling to bring free agent outfielder Cody Ross back for 2013 and beyond. His good season put against the backdrop of 93-loss-year may be clouding judgment a little bit, but I’d still love to see him back in a Sox uniform if the price is right. Ross has a swing built for Fenway, provides some right-handed pop in the middle of the lineup, and has the right personality to thrive in an environment like Boston. But the soon-to-be 32-year-old has plenty of downsides, too. Despite hitting 22 home runs (tied for his 2nd highest season total and most since 2009) and 34 doubles, Ross still only hit .267 on the year and struck out 129 times, only 10 less than Jarrod Saltalamacchia (in 9 more games, however). His home/road splits are pretty dramatic, proving that he’s much more valuable in parks that cater to dead-pull hitters (.298/.356/.565 line at Fenway, .232/.294/.390 on the road), and his defense can be shaky at times, and figures to only decline with age.
Ross kills left-handed pitching, putting up a 1.010 OPS and knocking 12 home runs in 132 at-bats versus southpaws in 2012. The problem is that he struggles against righties, hitting .256/.308/.422 and going deep only 10 times against righties in 344 at-bats. His splits make me think he would work well as a platoon-type player, getting the majority of the starts in right, but sitting against tough right-handers. I don’t know if Ross would be willing to accept this type of role after his strong season, but it’s something to consider.
So, we know Ross is a good fit on this team. Fans like him, he’ll provide solid production and power, and he’s a good clubhouse presence. But how much are the Sox willing to pay to bring him back? Part of the reason Ross looked so good this season was the fact that he was a bargain at three million dollars for only one year. The idea was for the outfielder to up his value during 2012 in order to pursue a multi-year deal in this offseason’s free agent market. But it turns out that he loves playing in Boston, and the Red Sox like having him. I’m sure the Sox would have no problem bringing back Ross on an affordable two-year deal, maybe somewhere in the $14-$16 million range, at the high end. But we learned that Ross is seeking a three-year, $25 million contract, and that he and the club were never close to striking a deal before he hit free agency. The Sox likely won’t give in to those demands, and if Ross isn’t willing to accept anything less, the team will probably look for other options. They have a crop of good, young outfielders only one or two years away from starting, and would rather not give Ross, who would be 34 at the start of the 2015 season, the third year. But if the club can work out a deal that guarantees Ross two years at a price that’s reasonable for both sides, in my mind he’s the best candidate for the job.
As I mentioned before, Ross would probably be most valuable to the team as a platoon-type player. Last season, he was originally brought in to share time in right with Ryan Sweeney, but Sweeney’s array of injuries kept him off the field for much of the season and allowed Ross to start just about every game. So this is where I think Ryan Kalish fits in. I’m not convinced he can be a full-time starter in the majors, not yet anyway, and his injury history makes me wary of awarding him a starting spot in the outfield without a plan B. After an impressive 2010 filling in for the injured Jacoby Ellsbury, Kalish missed all of 2011 and some of 2012 with a neck and shoulder injury. He only appeared in 36 games for the major league club this season, batting .229/.272/.260 and looking a little shaky on defense at times. And while he didn’t get consistent at-bats and the sample size is small, what I saw from Kalish this year doesn’t make me eager to give him a starting role without even knowing if he’s healthy or capable of putting up decent numbers. But Kalish could prove himself in a platoon role with Ross. Kalish brings energy and youth to the outfield, and new manager John Farrell and newly appointed bench coach Torey Lovullo are confident in his abilities. A situation where Ross gets the majority of the at-bats, say, between 2/3 and 3/4, and Kalish gets in there against righties a couple times a week could benefit both Kalish and the team as a whole.
There are a lot of options for left field, and I could go through them all at length, but I’ll save you all the time and trouble and tell you who I like the best. And out of all the free agent outfielders available, I like Torii Hunter the most. The possibility of getting him to sign a two-year deal, similar to (but probably more expensive) than the one I proposed for Ross should make Hunter appealing to the Red Sox, who, at this point in time, would likely rather spend more money than get locked into long-term pacts. Hunter may be getting old (he’ll turn 38 in July 2013), but his numbers suggest that he hasn’t hit as steep a decline as most players do in their late 30s. He’s been so consistent throughout his career, and is rarely injured, a characteristic that may be appealing to Boston after their early-season outfielder shortage in 2012. His power numbers were down in ‘12 (first time since 2005 he failed to hit more than 20 home runs with 16), but he got on base a lot, hitting .313 with a .365 OBP over 140 games. This guy is going to get on base and he’s going to hit for some power unless he has a ridiculously dramatic drop-off next season. Some may argue that the club should be focusing on youth rather than signing players in their late-30’s who are past their prime, but Hunter will help win games. Last year, his WAR (wins above replacement) was 5.3, the highest in his career and 7th highest in the American League among position players.
I know that I probably overestimate the value of “intangibles,” but it’s hard to ignore some of the things that a guy like Hunter could bring to this club. He could provide some veteran leadership on a team that’s getting younger, and has a reputation of being popular in the clubhouse and with teammates. Hunter’s a very likable guy, and as long as he produces, will probably become a fan favorite. The likability factor isn’t as that important usually, but this team could build some good will with fans.
Locking up Ross wasn’t supposed to be this difficult, but there’s still a chance he returns to Boston, and Hunter shouldn’t be an outrageously expensive option either. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I would love to see a Hunter-Ellsbury-Ross outfield combo in 2013.