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BOSTON -- The Red Sox outfield abounded with feel-good stories in 2010.
• Darnell McDonald, the former No. 1 draft pick who had spent most of the next 13 years in the minors, hitting a home run in his first Fenway at-bat and delivering a walk-off hit in the same game.
• Daniel Nava, an undrafted independent league alum, hitting a grand slam on the first pitch he saw in the big leagues.
• Rookie Ryan Kalish making dazzling catches while playing with a ferocity reminiscent of Trot Nixon.
• Bill Hall, the bench player who hit more home runs than any Sox part-timer ever.
But the cold, hard facts tell a different story, one that underscores how badly the Sox missed Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron, the injured opening day starters who combined to play just 66 games (Cameron 48, Ellsbury 18) this season.
The Sox ranked last in the American League and 29th out of 30 major league teams in outfield batting with a .245 average. Only the San Diego Padres' outfield had a lower average (.232). Sox outfielders were 10th in the AL in runs, 10th in stolen bases, sixth in home runs, tied for 11th (with the Royals) in OPS, 13th in OBP (ahead of just Oakland) and had the highest strikeout percentage, 25.7 percent.
Defensively, the numbers were just as bad. The Sox had a UZR150 rating of -6.4, the lowest in the AL. UZR150 is a metric that measures the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, per 150 defensive games.
Sox manager Terry Francona used 42 outfield combinations, eclipsing the team record of 41 set in 1996. An area that general manager Theo Epstein targeted for a defensive upgrade last winter, sacrificing the productive bat of Jason Bay to do so, remains ripe for improvement again this winter.
Ellsbury's absence at the top of the order left a huge hole: Sox leadoff men ranked 12th in the league with a dismal .318 on-base percentage and stole a league-low nine bases (every other team had 20 or more, led by Chicago's 67), a far cry from the league-leading 70 bags Ellsbury swiped in 2009.
Despite the friction between Ellsbury and the team's medical staff during the season, Epstein and Francona distanced themselves from that fray, maintaining a good relationship with the outfielder. The Sox have given every indication that they want Ellsbury back in 2011, the first season in which he is arbitration-eligible. Speculation that Ellsbury would be part of a package for Adrian Gonzalez appears misdirected; the Padres almost certainly would prefer cheaper alternatives than a player entering his arbitration years.
Ellsbury's name has come up in trade speculation ever since he broke in as a Sox rookie -- he was a prime target in the Johan Santana talks -- so it can't be totally dismissed that the Sox would part with him, but there is a stronger likelihood that he will be back.
Cameron's situation is more problematic. Cameron was signed with the intention of having him play center and moving Ellsbury to left, making the Sox stronger up the middle, but Cameron's abdominal tear quickly made hash of that plan. The Sox had restored Ellsbury to center until he was forced to shut it down with fractured ribs.
Cameron turns 38 in January, and only one team has gone to the World Series with a center fielder that old: Doc Cramer, who also played for the Red Sox, was 39 when the Detroit Tigers went to the World Series in 1945.
Cameron is owed $7.25 million for next season, but while a full recovery from surgery is expected, there is a risk involved because of his age and health that the Sox appear unlikely to take.
So, how to improve the outfield? The internal solution would be to turn to Kalish, who played enough last season to lose his rookie status for 2011 but is still raw, having played for just a short time in Triple-A Pawtucket before his promotion to the big leagues.
One scout for an AL East team was a big fan of the 22-year-old outfielder, saying that he's an everyday player now. But the Sox have dropped several hints that they would like to see Kalish gain more seasoning. A more likely scenario is to figure on Kalish as J.D. Drew's successor in right field when Drew's contract expires after next season, though Kalish also projects as a prime trading piece, especially in talks for Gonzalez with the Padres, who need outfielders badly.
|Ryan Kalish opened some eyes after his call-up, particularly with his defense, but the Red Sox may want him to get more seasoning in the minors.|
That leaves the two big names on the free-agent market, Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford and Philadelphia's Jayson Werth. Crawford brings great speed, exceptional defense and is younger than Werth (Crawford is 29, Werth 31). Werth has more power and bats right-handed, which may be a better fit for the Sox if they don't bring back Adrian Beltre and/or Victor Martinez.
Crawford is expected to be a prime target of the Yankees, who need a top-of-the-order presence now that Derek Jeter has reached the twilight of his career. The Angels are expected to be major bidders as well, which could easily place Crawford in a position of commanding a seven-year deal in excess of $100 million.
Werth presumably would come cheaper. Bay was 31 last year when the Sox offered him a four-year, $60 million deal that they later took off the table.
The Sox will probably be aggressive for both players, but Werth would rate as much more than a consolation prize if Crawford goes elsewhere.Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.