Commentary

Can patchwork outfield hold up?

As Red Sox rely on call-ups, their outfield ranking has plummeted

Updated: June 17, 2010, 5:37 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Here's the flip side of the remarkable Red Sox debuts made by Grand Slam Daniel Nava and, before him, Darnell McDonald, who also hit a home run in his first Sox at-bat.

On the whole, the Sox outfield is playing far below the norm in the American League, which is not unexpected given that two starters, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron, have a total of 45 and 72 plate appearances, respectively, 65 games into the season.

Last season, the Sox outfield of Jason Bay, Ellsbury and J.D. Drew collectively led the league in home runs (81), on-base percentage (.368) and slugging percentage (.484) while finishing second in batting average (.283).

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hermida
John Rieger/US PresswireJeremy Hermida has helped the Sox fill in the gaps while two of their starting outfielders recover from injury.

The story is far different this season. Relying on patchwork combinations that have featured McDonald, Jeremy Hermida and Bill Hall, with a cameo appearance by rookie Josh Reddick and now the latest import from Pawtucket, Nava, the Sox outfield collectively ranks next to last in the league in hitting (.257), 12th in OBP (.329), seventh in slugging (.421) and fifth in home runs (22).

Boston's plan in the offseason, remember, was to upgrade defensively even if it meant sacrificing Bay's offense. Last season's outfield ranked 10th in fielding percentage (.988) and was tied for fifth in ultimate zone rating/150 at 0.8. This season's outfield statistically has been about a wash: tied for sixth in fielding percentage (.987) and sixth in UZR (3.5). Hermida is demonstrably subpar defensively, and Cameron, who was supposed to have made the biggest impact, hasn't played enough to do so.

The Sox never anticipated having to rely so heavily on that bunch. They regarded McDonald as expendable last month when they thought Ellsbury and Cameron were both healthy, announcing they had designated McDonald for assignment before hurriedly canceling that transaction when Ellsbury reported recurring pain.

Hall was viewed more as a backup infielder than outfielder. Hermida was the fourth outfielder, who figured to play some left and back up J.D. Drew in right. Reddick began the season in Triple-A; Nava was a minor league folk tale who wasn't even on the 40-man roster and didn't get an invitation to big league camp.

An underappreciated aspect of the Red Sox's performance so far this season -- they enter this week's series against the Arizona Diamondbacks just four games out of first place in the AL East -- is that they have played as well as they have despite being shorthanded in the outfield.

Still, it begs the question: Will the Red Sox be seeking outfield help in the coming weeks? Ellsbury is not due back until the All-Star break at the earliest. Cameron is trying to play with an abdominal tear, but as was demonstrated anew last weekend when manager Terry Francona gave him both Saturday and Sunday off, he cannot play on an everyday basis. Hermida, like Ellsbury, has five fractured ribs.

The Red Sox are keeping their intentions close to the vest, but two veteran scouts said last week that they would be surprised if the Sox didn't look for help.

"What helps them,'' one scout said, "is that there are so many bad teams this year, there should be a lot of guys available.''

As many as 10 teams may decide they are not in a position to contend by the trade deadline. The Orioles, Indians, Mariners, Diamondbacks, Pirates and Astros already trail in their divisions by double digits entering play Tuesday. The Royals are 9½ games back and the Brewers 9 back, while the Chicago teams, the White Sox and Cubs, are six and seven games below .500, respectively, and could be sellers.

"Would the Cubs, for example, be willing to move Marlon Byrd?'' one scout wondered. "They signed him for three years [for a total of $15 million], but he'll be 33 in August and he could really help the Red Sox."

The Royals have a couple of veteran outfielders, Scott Podsednik and Rick Ankiel, who could be available. Ankiel has played little for the Royals because of a strained quadriceps muscle but is currently playing center field on a rehab assignment for Triple-A Omaha. Andruw Jones is a veteran on short money ($500,000) who has hit 10 home runs for the White Sox. Veteran Gabe Gross, the former Ray, is a backup in Oakland. Austin Kearns is hitting a tick under .300 in Cleveland, although his glove is no bargain. Veteran Corey Patterson has been resurrected in Baltimore.

For now, they are only names, and none, with the exception of Byrd, is what you would term an impact player. There are two questions the Sox must address: Are any of these players, or other names that may be on the Sox list, better than what they have now? Do they, just from a depth standpoint, have any choice but to add another outfielder? Those answers will come into focus in the coming weeks.

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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