Commentary

Red Sox have gaps in outfield

Cody Ross is a natural to return, but Boston isn't likely to stop there

Updated: October 11, 2012, 9:50 AM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPNBoston.com

Cody Ross loves hitting at Fenway Park. The Boston Red Sox have two openings in the outfield. Half the solution appears simple.

At home this past season, Ross' .921 OPS put him among the league's elite. Only three American League players had more extra-base hits at home than Ross' 39: Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler and Robinson Cano.

In the 100 years of Fenway Park's history, only four players had more extra-base hits in their first season with the Red Sox: Ted Williams, Bill Mueller, Jimmie Foxx and Dick Stuart.

Of course, there also are those pesky road games. Away from Fenway, Ross hit just .232 with a .684 OPS.

Other teams might be scared away by Ross' distinct home-road splits, but Boston can take comfort in knowing his stroke is ideal for Fenway. That, and the mutual interest, should be enough to keep Ross in a Red Sox uniform.

Ross was a bargain at $3 million in 2012. He'll likely command at least twice that annually in a multiyear deal.

Assuming Boston can get Ross back in the fold, that still leaves another outfield opening.

The internal options -- Ryan Sweeney, Daniel Nava, Ryan Kalish -- didn't take advantage of extended opportunities in 2012.

But in an otherwise lackluster free-agent market, the Red Sox can assess several quality outfielders.

Tier 1: Josh Hamilton

Only Delmon Young swung at a higher percentage of pitches this past season. No one missed on a higher percentage of his swings or chased a higher percentage of pitches outside the zone.

Hamilton is a hugely productive hitter right now, but it's pretty easy to envision a time when age catches up to him. Few power hitters have survived into old age without plate discipline. Notable exceptions include Andre Dawson and Joe Carter.

For a 31-year-old about to enjoy a huge payday, that's a troubling thought.

Hamilton would infuse the Red Sox with star power, but a risky signing seems counterproductive for a team seeking fiscal responsibility.

Tier 2: Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, B.J. Upton

Based on 2012 wins above replacement, Bourn is the most valuable outfielder on the free-agent market.

Much of that value comes from his center-field defense. Assuming Jacoby Ellsbury isn't traded, Bourn makes little sense for Boston.

Upton's defense in center is considered average at best, so it's a bit easier to envision him moving to one of the corners. At 28, his youth is cause for intrigue. But Upton never has quite had the breakout his 2008 postseason foretold.

His price tag likely increased with an MLB-leading 12 home runs in September. The reality is Upton has posted a .736 OPS since 2009. That's the same number as Jeff Keppinger and Chris Coghlan. Someone will hand Upton a massive long-term deal. It shouldn't be the Red Sox.

On paper, Swisher might be Boston's ideal offseason target. He'd potentially fill holes at first base and in the outfield. Signing Swisher would be a key step in rededicating Boston's lineup to an approach based on plate discipline.

Swisher will be in high demand in this weak market. At 32, his appeal to the Red Sox might depend on his willingness to sacrifice years for dollars.

Tier 3: Melky Cabrera, Torii Hunter, Ryan Ludwick, Cody Ross, Shane Victorino

For all the talk of Hamilton and Swisher as risks for long-term deals, it's rather ironic to consider 37-year-old Hunter as perhaps the best option. However, a strong case can be made for that being the case.

After hitting .350 over the final two months of the season, Hunter finished with a career-high .313 batting average. With the third-most defensive runs saved among right fielders, he'd allow Ross to move to left field. By all accounts, few players are a better presence in the clubhouse.

In August, Hunter told WEEI.com that he'd be open to Boston "especially if David [Ortiz] is there."

Could Hunter be lured by a lucrative one-year deal? It might be difficult. He is tremendously popular in Anaheim and has expressed a desire to stay.

Like Ross, Ludwick returned to form in a contract year. Only Ryan Braun and Mike Trout had a higher OPS in the second half among outfielders. Also like Ross, Ludwick might not want to mess with a good thing. There's a $5 million mutual option that could keep him in Cincinnati.

While Hunter, Ross and Ludwick dramatically improved their stocks in 2012, Victorino and Cabrera saw their fortunes decline (albeit for very different reasons).

Victorino had his least productive season in a contract year, hitting .255 with a .704 OPS. Defensively, he fared quite well after a move to left field. Once destined for a big contract, he'd likely make sense for Boston only if he falls through the cracks.

It's difficult to project a market for Cabrera after his suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. But he's 28, so someone is bound to gamble that he can approach his .346 batting average without cheating.

Tier 4: Jonny Gomes, Scott Hairston, Angel Pagan, Delmon Young

Both Gomes (.974 OPS vs. LHP) and Hairston (.867 OPS vs. LHP) could be ideal if the Red Sox elect to go with a platoon.

Ryan Sweeney went 2-for-20 against lefties, so he's ideally suited for a platoon. Although a switch-hitter, Daniel Nava has a .768 career OPS against righties, compared to .621 against southpaws.

Young brings off-field questions, lacks any semblance of plate discipline and has never lived up to his hype. It's difficult to think of a worse option for the Red Sox.

In 2010, Pagan rated as one of the top defensive outfielders in the game. Over the past two seasons, he's one of the 10 worst. His bat doesn't provide enough if his defense isn't up to par.

Potential Trade Options: Shin-Soo Choo, Alfonso Soriano, Denard Span, Justin Upton, Chris Young, Gerardo Parra

A year from free agency, Choo figures to be actively shopped this offseason. Over the past four seasons, the only outfielders with a higher on-base percentage are Braun, Matt Holliday and Jose Bautista. Perhaps new Indians manager Terry Francona would like to bring some of his former players to Cleveland.

Soriano put up his best numbers in four years, including a career-high 108 RBIs. Theo Epstein will make every effort to escape from at least some of the $36 million still owed to the soon-to-be 37-year-old.

Boston's best hope to acquire a young, quality outfielder involves the Arizona Diamondbacks, who have an abundance of them.

Justin Upton is the clear prize of the group. He would immediately reinvigorate the Red Sox lineup with some star power, but Arizona will ask for the farm.

Add Young (and the Twins' Span) to the list of center-field options if the Red Sox opt to move Ellsbury. Parra won a Gold Glove in 2011 and would look great roaming the vast right field at Fenway.

Jeremy Lundblad

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