Commentary

A patchwork masterpiece

How the Red Sox have pieced together a productive outfield

Updated: June 20, 2012, 5:29 PM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPNBoston.com

The revolving door just won't stop.

The Boston Red Sox started their 25th different trio of outfielders on Tuesday. That's a major league high 25 different starting outfields in 67 games. The Miami Marlins have the next most with 21.

With Cody Ross returning from the disabled list Tuesday, Boston's patchwork outfield enters its next chapter. But not once have the Red Sox seen the starting outfield they envisioned in the offseason. Carl Crawford's elbow has kept him sidelined all season. Then Jacoby Ellsbury dislocated his shoulder in Boston's seventh game of the season. That's over $28 million in talent residing on the disabled list.

As if those injuries weren't enough, even the replacements have required replacements. Darnell McDonald, Ryan Kalish, Jason Repko, Cody Ross, Ryan Sweeney and now Scott Podsednik have all hit the DL at some point.

In all, Boston has used 13 players in the outfield in 2012. No other team has used more than 11. The Colorado Rockies, by contrast, have used only just five. Seven of Boston's 13 have started at least 16 games.

The Red Sox have yet to start the same outfield for four games in a row. Consider that in 1984, the trio of Jim Rice, Tony Armas and Dwight Evans started 78 in a row.

The most frequently used starting outfield featured Ross, Marlon Byrd and Ryan Sweeney. That trio started 10 games together. No other unit has started more than six.

The situation is eerily reminiscent of 2010. That's when Mike Cameron and Ellsbury couldn't get healthy. Daniel Nava and McDonald, among others, became unlikely contributors. At this point in 2010, the most common outfield featured Bill Hall, McDonald and J.D. Drew.

In all, the Red Sox used 27 different outfield combinations prior to the 2010 All-Star Game, most in franchise history. At 25, this year's club should equal that mark by the weekend. Prior to 2010, the Red Sox had never started 25 outfield trios before the break. Now it has happened in two of the last three years. Long gone is the 2009 season, when Jason Bay started 109 games alongside Ellsbury and Drew.

For some context, consider the Red Sox career of Darnell McDonald. Three years ago, he was best known as a minor leaguer who once raced against a horse named Zippy Chippy. Then Ellsbury and Cameron got hurt. With his next appearance, McDonald will tie Drew for most games played (209) in the Red Sox outfield since 2010.

In other words, a fringe major leaguer struggling to maintain his roster spot has been Boston's most reliable outfielder over the past three years. By comparison, Jacoby Ellsbury has appeared in 179 games in that span.

This wasn't how the Red Sox drew it up. Crawford and Ellsbury were supposed to be terrorizing opponents with their power and speed. Ross and Sweeney would combine to provide the consistency in right field that Drew couldn't in 2011.

Instead, the Red Sox have leaned on a patchwork group consisting of post-prospects, bench players, reclamation projects and an out-of-position All-Star.

But a funny thing has happened amid the chaos. The Red Sox outfield has been, well, serviceable.

That's not to say Boston is getting great production from the outfield. The combined 15 home runs are equaled by Boston's catchers, and rank 27th in the majors.

But considering Nava, McDonald, Podsednik and Byrd have all played key roles, it's hard to deny that Boston's outfield has exceeded expectations. A strong case can be made that the 2012 outfield has been better than its 2011 counterpart even without Jacoby Ellsbury's MVP caliber season.

The patchwork outfield is hitting .277 with a .760 OPS. Last season, the outfield hit .272 with a .772 OPS.

While the home runs numbers are down, the 2012 outfield is on a record pace for doubles. More significantly, Boston's outfield defense has been the best in the American League with 16 defensive runs saved.

After a tumultuous adjustment period after Ellsbury went down, just about anyone Bobby Valentine pencils into the lineup performs. Based on wins above replacement, Boston's three most valuable outfielders have been Nava, Podsednik and Sweeney.

Nava and Podsednik didn't even appear in the majors in 2011 and didn't get their call-ups until over a month into 2012.

Nava, who was famously cut from his college team, has been Boston's most valuable player since his call-up. He's hitting .358 against righties, while playing dramatically improved defense.

Podsednik, the second oldest player on the team, was hitting .387 when he was placed on the disabled list Tuesday. He had nine multi-hit games in 16 starts. That's more than Kevin Youkilis has this season.

Eventually, at least in theory, the Red Sox outfield will be healthy again. Ellsbury took batting practice on the field Tuesday and should start a rehab assignment next week. Crawford is also getting closer. Both could be patrolling the outfield by around the All-Star break.

So what happens then? With all of these overperforming outfielders, the Red Sox could soon have a roster crunch.

The easiest decision will be moving Adrian Gonzalez back to first base on a permanent basis. That still leaves Ross, Sweeney, Podsednik, Nava, McDonald and Kalish battling for three spots.

Boston might actually be selling outfielders at the trade deadline. Imagine that.

Jeremy Lundblad

ESPN Stats and Information

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