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Thursday, February 9, 2012
10Q/10D: Are Sox set in the outfield?

By Gordon Edes



(Editor's note: This is the third installment in our "10 Questions in 10 Days" series leading into Red Sox spring training, which officially kicks off Feb. 19, when pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report.)

BOSTON -- The meeting never came off. Carl Crawford chooses his own company in the offseason.

Boston Red Sox GM Ben Cherington and manager Bobby Valentine had to be content with a phone call, which came only after Crawford discovered his left wrist was aching, the team and player deciding that surgery might be a good idea.

In some ways, you can't blame Crawford for being less than eager to have a sitdown with his bosses to discuss the 2011 season. That ended in Baltimore with the Sox version of a Wes Welker moment, when Crawford was unable to make a sliding catch of Robert Andino's sinking liner that dropped for the hit that completed the Sox free-fall out of a playoff spot.

Jacoby Ellsbury
With any luck, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford will have a lot to celebrate in 2012.
You can debate which play had the greater degree of difficulty, the sure-handed Welker missing the back-shoulder pass thrown by Tom Brady or the Gold Glover Crawford not putting sufficient leather glove on Andino's ball before it fell to earth. Welker said it was a play he has made "a thousand times." Crawford said he felt he had a "good chance" to make the kind of play that was a staple of his repertoire for Tampa Bay.

What is beyond dispute is the colossal disconnect between Boston's expectations and Crawford's performance after they signed him to a seven-year, $142 million deal last winter. Most fans know the broad outlines of his stat line: the .255 batting average, the 65 runs scored, the 18 stolen bases, all career lows.

Less advertised are the historic components of just how bad he was in 2011. Crawford's on-base percentage of .289 was the lowest of any Red Sox left-fielder ever (minimum 300 at-bats) in a season. For Sox outfielders with 500 or more at-bats, Tony Armas is the only outfielder with a lower on-base percentage (.254), and that came in a season, 1983, in which Armas hit 36 home runs and drove in 107 runs.

Crawford also walked just 23 times (while striking out 104 times). The only Sox outfielder with fewer walks (and 500 or more at-bats) was Shano Collins, who had 18. In 1921.

If a Red Sox minor leaguer had put up those kind of numbers for the on-base-obsessed Red Sox, he could have kissed goodbye any chance of a promotion. Yet for that, the Red Sox are on the hook for $20 million a season to Crawford.

Which makes it all the more disconcerting that any plans Crawford had of demonstrating that last season was an aberration will by necessity be postponed while he recovers from his wrist surgery. Cherington has expressed confidence that Crawford will miss just the start of the season, but such projections are always suspect. And while the procedure -- a debridement to remove damaged tissue as a way to treat arthritis in the wrist -- was described as routine -- wrist injuries have the potential to remain troublesome for a hitter.

So with uncertainty in left and J.D. Drew's departure in right -- injuries limited him to just 284 plate appearances in his farewell season and hastened his apparent decision to retire -- the Sox are looking at opening the season with MVP runner-up Jacoby Ellsbury in center field flanked by two newly acquired part-timers, Bay Area imports Ryan Sweeney (Oakland) and Cody Ross (San Francisco).

Sweeney, who came in the trade for closer Andrew Bailey, is just 26 and has a swing made for the Green Monster, or so the Sox told him after the trade. He is an above-average defender, but he also went more than a year between home runs (May 4, 2010 to July 27, 2011).

Ross, 31, was a postseason star for the Giants after his trade from the Marlins in 2010, but was deemed expendable by the Giants after batting just .240 with his second straight season of just 14 home runs, after hitting 46 over the previous two seasons in Florida. Ross was on the Sox radar from the start of the winter, but became a must-sign after Crawford's surgery. His power numbers should improve in Fenway and he gives the Red Sox a potent bat against left-handers, and he will be bidding for an every-day spot in the Sox outfield.

Another potential contender for regular playing time is Ryan Kalish, but after neck and shoulder procedures, he is not expected back until early summer. Darnell McDonald figures to stick as the fifth outfielder.

So much hinges on Crawford. A bounce-back season, the kind the Red Sox expect, will have a galvanizing impact on the entire lineup. But continued struggles, whether because of his wrist or an inability to settle in here, could make the outfield a real trouble spot in 2012.

Coming Sunday: Do the Red Sox have enough starting pitching?