Friday, February 22, 2008

A Rational Look at Center Field

This is actually a tricky subject. We have a very talented 28 year old veteran gold glove caliber center fielder in Coco Crisp. But, we also have Jacoby Ellsbury - a terrific looking 24 year old rookie center fielder who played a key part in winning the World Series last year. What do irrational fans scream about this? Well, they scream about the last thing that happened of course. The last thing that happened is that we saw Coco having some struggles at the plate, but playing some tremendous outfield. When he got banged up, Jacoby Ellsbury went in and lit a spark under the team. He hit, he ran, he fielded, he looked great. So, the irrational fan says, "Dump that bum Coco Crisp. Put that amazing kid Ellsbury in there!".

So, what does a rational fan think? I think we are in great shape. From where I sat, Coco Crisp deserved to win a gold glove last year, and he saved quite a number of hits, and runs, with some amazing defense. I would expect we'd see a repeat of that great defense this year too. His defensive weakness is a mediocre throwing arm. But, if you make the catch, you may not need the throw! His arm is average, but that won't cost the Sox too much. On the base paths Crisp is a stolen base threat who can be counted on for about 20 or more thefts per year. But, at the plate, we should not expect too much. He hit .300 once with the Indians, and you probably should not expect him to be more than a .285 hitter on average. That said, he did hit below .285 the past 2 seasons. He is not a real power hitter, but managed to hit 15 and 16 HR's in his last two seasons with Cleveland. That is probably his upper end. So, where does that leave us? Well, he would be a very valuable center fielder on any team. You want him in there for solid defense, which is critical. Offensively, you might want to bat him leadoff to take advantage of his speed, but his on base percentage doesn't look like a leadoff hitter's. So, you'll probably use him toward the bottom of the order unless he's on a hot streak, but keep in mind there is value in his being a switch hitter too.

What about Ellsbury? I loved watching him last year. Young, fast and fearless are three words that come to mind. He is just as fast, if not a step faster, than Coco. He showed he can steal bases, and will only get better at that with good coaching. He looked good in the outfield, but I have to be honest, he is not as good as Coco yet. He has speed, which gives him the range Coco has, but last summer you could see Coco's glove was more of a vacuum - the ball just stuck better on diving and reaching plays. This is a small difference, but the biggest difference was playing fly balls that scrape or hit low off the wall. Jacoby missed at least 3 balls off the wall last summer that Crisp would have reeled in. I honestly think this is just a matter of practice and coaching, but Jacoby was very hesitant going up the wall for a fly and did not judge it well.

Offensively, he looks intriguing. He is still young, and I think he's still feeling his way around to a final batting stroke. Right now he's primarily focused on reading the pitch and getting the bat on it any way he can. He has a nice level swing to maximize the opportunity for contact, but it gives him a tendency towards being a slap hitter - ala Ichiro or Johnny Damon. Nothing wrong with that! As a speedy left handed batter, he (like Ichiro and Damon) will be able to fight off tough pitchers by just getting a piece of the ball and beating out the throw. Then, he can create havoc on the bases. He's strong enough to hit for power on occassion, but won't pull out that swing unless he sees a meatball coming. Probably good for 10-15 HR's a year. Hard to tell how he'll compare to Crisp yet - there's simply not enough evidence - but I think he has a terrific upside and lots of potential.

Okay, enough of all that. Who plays center field this year?

The answer... Too early to tell. Francona is saying the right things. Crisp is the incumbent. He is, at the moment, the Red Sox center fielder. If the season started today, it would be Crisp in center. If Crisp struggles (like Duston Pedroia did for a spell last spring) Francona can always give him a rest with Jacoby going to center. If Jacoby is hot, he may stay until he cools off. Crisp, like last year, would realize that was the best thing for the team. But, the season does not start today. The Sox coaching staff will follow this closely. The player who looks the best to them will get the nod by the end of Spring Training. A tie will go to Coco.

Coco has indicated he wants to start, he wants to play. So do all players. He says he'd rather start for another team than sit on the bench for the Sox. I can't blame him for that. He's only been here 2 seasons. He is not a lifetime Sox guy (yet). He's also at the age where he needs to play or get rusty and settle to finish the rest of his career as a bench player.

Theo Epstein should be thinking about this for only one reason. If Jacoby truly stands out in Spring Training, and the Sox are willing to hand the job to him, it would be a smart strategy to leverage Coco in a trade to help fill other needs, keep Coco happy, and retain a happy locker room. But that is putting the cart before the horse right now. Remember how we always worry about having too many starting pitchers, and then find ourselves short on pitching due to injuries? Same thing can go for outfield. Right now, we have a terrific groups of outfielders. Let them play themselves into or out of a starting role, and take it from there.

Besides, if JD drew got injured or was simply having another bad year (which I do not expect), how would we like to see Manny in left, Coco in center, and Ellsbury in right?

So, this one is not worth the stress right now, and it won't be for a while. Odds are, unless Theo sees a trade out there that involves Coco that he can't refuse, we'll open the season with Crisp in center, and Jacoby on the roster ready to fill in. Jacoby will get plenty of playing time giving guys a rest, filling in for an injury, spelling guys who are in a slump, and pinch running. But, once he gets in, we may find he sticks there!

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