Given the many disastrous factors that combined to crush the Red Sox last season, the zombie-like performance of their right fielders probably ranks among the more significant, but overlooked causes. After all, when you just miss out on the postseason, any one factor could have been the determinant.
Last season, the average American League right fielder hit .267/337/.431. The Yankees, enduring an up-and-down season from Nick Swisher, got .257/.372/.448. Matt Joyce’s bat sputtered out in June after rampaging to a .370/.430/.636 start to the season, but the Rays still received a roughly average .261/.336/.436 from their right fielders. Red Sox right fielders hit .233/.299/.353.
The only thing that stops those numbers from being truly astounding is that the Mariners were worse, but last season’s Mariners offense was so bad that I feel comfortable saying that the Red Sox ranked last among the 13 teams not being punished by the cosmos for some unnameable sin.
The primary culprits last season were J.D. Drew (now gone from the team and everywhere else), Josh Reddick (since traded to the A’s) and Mike Cameron (who retired earlier this spring). Rather than go with a pricey big-name upgrade, general manager Ben Cherington and pals went with a platoon of journeymen, picking up the left-handed hitting Ryan Sweeney as part of the deal for closer Andrew Bailey (sending the A’s the aforementioned Reddick and two other players), and signing righty-swinging career National Leaguer Cody Ross as a free agent.
Sweeney, who has spent more than his share of time on the disabled list, is a singles hitter who has hit .308/.362/.418 away from the tough Oakland ballpark in his career. He’s a .233/.306/.289 career hitter against same-side pitching. Last season he hit .265/.346/.341 overall in 108 games.
Ross, a career .261/.323/.456 hitter, batted .240/.325/.405 for the Giants in 2011. Once purchased by the Marlins from the Reds for cash, Ross is versatile enough to play all three outfield positions. He’s just acceptable against same-side pitching, hitting .253/.313/.414 against right-handed pitching, but pounds southpaws, with career rates of .282/.349/.563. He has totaled 48 doubles and 46 home runs in just 684 career at-bats at them.
The actual deployment of this platoon is going to wait for Carl Crawford’s recovery from offseason wrist surgery, which has reached the “he-took-some-swings” stage. Even so, Ross by himself will be an improvement on what Boston got last year—almost anyone would be—even if he likely won’t be good by the standards of the position.
The question is if that will be enough.
The Red Sox scored a league-leading 875 runs last year, so you would think getting even decent right field production would be gravy. Still, Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz could regress, Crawford could continue to struggle and non-hitter Jose Iglesias could wind up with a lot of time at shortstop. There are no guarantees that the Sox won’t need that production more than they did last year.
In a tight race, flirting with the replacement level at even one position can make the difference between October play and going home. The Red Sox have surely left the replacement level behind in the right field corner, but if the combined production of Sweeney and Ross is just good enough, they may regret not having done more.