Carlos Gonzalez

Upgrades in the Outfield: When Pitching Is Too Expensive

Dave did it. He finally did it. The first trade of the 2016 Red Sox season has occurred! But, true to his reputation of surprising us, it wasn’t for the pitching we all covet. Jose Fernandez, Chris Sale, et al aren’t coming here, at least not now, not yet. Instead it’s infielder Aaron Hill, who should strengthen up the team’s reserves in the infield and provide a valuable bat off the bench. This isn’t the kind of move a non-contending team makes. Indeed, the acquisition of Hill means the Red Sox are going for it, and after the trade, President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski was quoted in the Providence Journal as saying almost exactly that. “We’re in a position where we’re trying to win this thing. We think [Hill] makes us better,” he said.

So the Red Sox are going for it. Like really going for it, and that deal plus that thought process makes an argument for further trades. We knew the Red Sox needed starting pitching before the Hill trade and now they’ve dealt away Aaron Wilkerson, a Triple-A starter widely thought of as a possibility to join the major league rotation, so that need is that much stronger. It’s undeniable the Red Sox need a better starter, maybe even two better starters if Eduardo Rodriguez isn’t going to help this season. The problem is finding them. They don’t seem to exist out on the market, so instead, Dombrowski should focus on improving the team in a different way: fix left field.

But left field isn’t broken! No, it’s not, but it sort of is. The Red Sox have received good production from left field so far this season, which is strange because if you look at the players they’ve used so far, that might surprise you. To date the most plate appearances have been taken by Brock Holt, who isn’t what you’d call an ideal left fielder. He’s been fine out there for the most part, but when Holt is starting at a position it prevents him from roving around and utilizing the vast array of skills he possesses to the team’s highest and best benefit. Put it this way. Using Holt as a starting left fielder turns an asset into a mediocre left fielder.

Using Holt as a starting left fielder turns an asset into a mediocre left fielder.

So the Red Sox probably need to find someone else. Chris Young was fantastic against both lefties and, bizarrely, against righties this season. Maybe that will continue when he comes back from the Disabled List, but considering he has 5,000 plate appearances in his career that say he’s good at hitting lefties but lousy at hitting righties, it’s probably not best to bet on Chris Young hitting like Chris Young against lefties against righties (got that?) going forward. After Young, Blake Swihart (injured), Rusney Castillo (Triple-A), Ryan LaMarre (DFA’d), and Bryce Brentz (place holder) have played there. None of those guys should be starting in left field on a playoff team.

The team has a .768 OPS from their left fielders this season, and that’s 12th in baseball, which is pretty good. But, sad emoji, that’s likely unrepeatable with the talent they have on-hand in the second half of the season. Brentz has hit since getting called up, something he’s not done in Triple-A, and likely won’t continue to do in the majors with more at-bats. Like Holt, asking Young to start every day is probably asking for failure. So it seems a safe bet that over the second half of the season the Red Sox will experience a downturn in production from left field if they do not make any changes to their current personnel. The Red Sox need a new, better, regular left fielder.

However, they need pitching more. And last year’s first round draft pick, Andrew Beintendi, looks like the real deal in Double-A so far and there’s real hope he can be the long-term solution in left field for the Red Sox as soon as next season, or, maybe more realistically, the one after. They don’t want to acquire a Ryan Braun who would then block Benintendi, or a similar player who would have a long term deal. They also need pitching badly. Did I mention that? They need pitching very badly.

Thing is, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of impact starting pitching available on the trade market, and that means if a good pitcher is going to come to Boston, he’s going to need to be pried out of his current home. You know those “make me move” offers you see sometimes on real estate websites. Dombrowski is going to have to make some GM an offer he can’t refuse and that offer is almost certainly not going to be a good one for the Red Sox.

Perhaps making minor moves to prop up the team’s starting pitching depth makes sense if it comes with a bigger, better move at a different position of need, like say, left field.

Maybe there is a deal to be had that doesn’t cripple the organization. Maybe there’s something out there that makes sense given all the factors at play. If so I’m sure Dombrowski will find it, but if not, and [spoiler!] I suspect not, perhaps making minor moves to prop up the team’s starting pitching depth makes sense if it comes with a bigger, better move at a different position of need, like say, left field.

The name that springs to mind here is Carlos Gonzalez. He’s enjoying a strong season in Colorado, hitting .319/.368/.556 with 18 homers. The home/road splits are, as always with Rockies players, daunting, but there’s reason to believe once the player gets out of the thin Colorado air entirely he’ll get more used to it and the numbers will positively reflect that. Gonzalez has a year after this season left on his deal and Boston could handle the $20 million hit in 2017. He could be kept to win next year or dealt after this season to help replenish the hit to the minors his acquisition would make. They could make that decision based on their desire to go with Benintendi, or to give him more seasoning in the minors, but ether way it gives the team flexibility and depth in case of injury as well as a serious upgrade in left field. Gonzalez would likely cost a good prospect, but the Red Sox have those to give in the service of winning with David Ortiz in 2016.

Another name to throw out there is Jay Bruce. Bruce is enjoying nice bounce-back season after a few years in the proverbial wilderness, hitting .268/.317/.546 with 18 homers for sad-sack Cincinnati. Bruce isn’t quite the hitter or fielder Gonzalez is, but he’s cheaper (the remainder of $12.5 million this season and a team option for $13 million in 2017) and would likely not cost as much to acquire. Both Bruce and Gonzalez are left handed so, should it be necessary to give them a day off, Chris Young could perfectly spell them against a left-hander now and again.

The Red Sox could get on alright without either of these or countless other guys, but the issue is bang for the buck. A good starter is going to cost a tremendous amount in this trade market, but an upgrade in left field could be as impactful and a lot cheaper. Cheaper doesn’t just mean more money for the team, it means holding on to more and better prospects, something that will help the team both now as they try to win with David Ortiz, and as they move into the post-Ortiz era. So win now, Dave Dombrowski. And yes the Red Sox badly need starting pitching, but mostly they need increased production. A 12-10 win is, after all, still a win.

Photo by Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports Images

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