Beyond July 31, the Red Sox now have obvious questions to answer. From the starting rotation to the play of Xander Bogaerts at shortstop, the Red Sox will be in the business of making evaluations.
How much stock do the Red Sox want to put into one-third of a season, the precise 54-game stretch that began on Friday against the Yankees? Excellent question. But the answers may run a good deal deeper than many would like to believe.
A few story lines to watch down the stretch:
1. Center field.
Red Sox manager John Farrell claims center field is not a platoon situation, but it seemed a little curious when the Sox brought back Mookie Betts from Triple-A Pawtucket. Betts looked unsure of himself in the outfield during his first call-up and still has just 157 career plate appearances at Triple-A, and it makes more sense to have him playing every day in the minors than it does playing part-time in the majors.
Unless, of course, he and Jackie Bradley are competing for one spot on next year’s team.
And suddenly, that’s what this feels like.
Interestingly, Bradley (.876) and Betts (.873) have nearly an identical OPS in the minor leagues. But Bradley now has nearly 500 career plate appearances and still hasn’t hit in the bigs, taking career totals of .212/.288/.308/.596 into this week’s series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Meanwhile, Betts has batted a combined .342 this year at Double-A and Triple-A, all while making the conversion from infield to outfield.
At the moment, at least, Betts looks like the better offensive player. Bradley is better defensively. But if Bradley hits over the final two months – or if Betts makes more plays like the sprawling, over-the-shoulder catch he made Friday night – the scale could tip.
Given the profile of these two prospects, it’s hard to believe that either is a candidate to be on the bench next year as an extra outfielder. More than likely, one will be used in a trade, presumably for pitching. If the Sox are serious about playing Allen Craig in left field and Yoenis Cespedes in right field heading into next season, they will need a center fielder who can cover ground, particularly to the right side of the outfield at Fenway Park.
Obviously, things can change, especially if Craig keeps having foot/ankle problems. (Betts could easily play left.) But you get the idea. It certainly feels as if someone in center field is about to get squeezed out.
2. Right field.
Ask yourselves this question: if the Red Sox were confident in Cespedes’ ability to play right field at Fenway Park, why hasn’t he been out there yet?
The answer: because they’re not confident.
Cespedes got all kinds of attention on ESPN and the internet for the incredible throw he made from left field to gun down Los Angeles Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick earlier this season, but here’s what many people overlooked on the play: the throw became necessary only after Cespendes mishandled the ball in the first place. On Sunday night, Cespedes took a bad angle on a ball hit into the left field corner, offering further evidence that his outfield instincts leave something to be desired.
The Red Sox know this, which is the real reason they kept Cespedes in left field over the weekend. They easily could have played Daniel Nava in left field and put Cespedes in right, but they didn’t. By now, we all know that the Sox place a premium on defense in right field given the sizable area to cover at Fenway Park, which is why they effectively overpaid for both J.D. Drew and Shane Victorino.
So here’s the question: what if Cespedes can't play right or, more specifically, stinks there? Depending on whether the Sox choose to re-sign him – won’t he turn into a pumpkin at age 30, too? – there seems a logjam involving Cespedes and Craig, unless either David Ortiz or Mike Napoli is affected. Maybe the Sox were hedging their bets by acquiring both Cespedes and Craig with the hope one would pan out. But if the plan is to play both, Cespedes needs to prove that he play an effective right field at Fenway Park.
If not, the Sox are going to have a decision to make. And we should note that Betts or Bradley could both end up on the roster as a result, one of them shifting to right.
3. The left side of the infield.
This isn’t as simple as determining whether Bogaerts can play shortstop, though that is certainly a big part of it. It’s about figuring out the best alignment on the entire left side of the infield for years to come. Defensive wizard and shortstop Deven Marrero (2012, first round) has had a nice year in the minors, though his offense has dipped some (.265/.305/.337/.641) since being promoted to Triple-A about a month ago. Meanwhile, Garin Cecchini also has dipped at Pawtucket (.238/.316/.325/.641), which makes you wonder whether the Sox’ minor-league depth is as good as everyone believes it to be.
Still, between Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, Marrero and Cecchini, it feels like the Red Sox have four players for two spots – especially with the outfield cluttered, too. (Remember, the Sox experimented with Middlebrooks in left field before acquiring Craig and Cespedes, but scrapped it.) Bogaerts’ upside and age make him the most likely candidate to be involved long term – either at third base or short – but there are obviously a lot of moving parts here, from Bogaerts’ defense at short to Middlebrooks’ ability to hit.
If Middlebrooks can’t hit consistently – and he has batted .223 since the start of last season – Bogaerts may very well end up at third. And that, in turn, would have a direct impact on the future of Cecchini (at third base) or Marrero (at short).
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