Which free-agent outfielder should the Boston Red Sox target?
The Boston Red Sox have a void to fill in their outfield and the free-agent market is the most viable path for finding a solution.
Center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. wasn’t extended a qualifying offer so he’ll test free agency for the first time in his career. The Red Sox never made much of an effort to negotiate an extension for the defensive wizard so it appears they are willing to let him walk, although it’s possible they are simply waiting to let the market dictate his value before making an offer.
Boston could also consider handing the center field job over to prospect Jarren Duran or sign a low-cost veteran to fill the position until he’s ready.
The Red Sox have money to spend after resetting the luxury tax penalties so shopping in the bargain bin shouldn’t be necessary. Pitching is their biggest priority but they don’t need to break the bank to find the modest upgrades they need for the rotation and bullpen.
Two of the top bats on the market happen to be outfielders who can help fill another position of need. If Boston is willing to allocate a decent sized chunk of their available budget to upgrading their outfield, George Springer and Marcell Ozuna provide desirable options.
Both are All-Star caliber players who would be a welcome addition to any lineup but which one is the better fit for Boston?
The case for the Red Sox signing Springer
Springer enjoyed the best season of his career in 2019 when he hit .292 with a .974 OPS, 39 home runs and 96 RBI. He finished seventh on the AL MVP ballot while earning his third consecutive All-Star appearance and second career Silver Slugger award.
Essentially the entire Houston Astros lineup scuffled early this season while dealing with the distraction of their sign-stealing scandal. Springer recovered to post another strong campaign, ranking inside the top-10 in the American League with 14 home runs and an .899 OPS.
Over the last two seasons, Springer’s 153 wRC+ is seventh in the majors and and his .394 wOBA ranks eighth. Among this crop of free-agents, only Nelson Cruz rates higher in both categories since the beginning of last year but the 40-year-old DH isn’t on Boston’s radar.
While he has the power to hit in the middle of the order, Springer has spent the majority of his career batting lead-off, a spot Boston struggled to fill this year. Andrew Benintendi failed in the role before landing on the injured list. Alex Verdugo fared well at the top of the order but took over the role rather reluctantly. Springer provides a proven option in the lead-off spot, allowing Boston’s other outfielders to slot in further down the order where they are more comfortable.
Springer doesn’t have the defensive reputation of Bradley Jr. but his 6 defensive runs saved this season topped the 5 DRS produced by the Red Sox center fielder. Springer is above-average or better by essentially any defensive metric.
The ability to take over in center field makes Springer a more seamless fit than Ozuna, who is no longer a viable option to patrol the middle of the outfield. A shoulder injury has limited Ozuna’s arm strength in recent years, pushing him over to left field. He spent most of this season as a DH, a position the Red Sox won’t have available with J.D. Martinez opting in for next year. Fenway’s shallow left field would help protect Ozuna while Benny can slide over to center but it would be an overall downgrade for the defensive alignment.
Rumor has it that Springer wants out of Houston and that could bring the Connecticut native back to New England. If the Red Sox re-hire former manager Alex Cora, who was the bench coach for the Astros in 2017, he provides another connection to help lure Springer to Boston.
The case for the Red Sox signing Ozuna
There’s no question that Ozuna had the better season in 2020. He hit .338 with a 1.067 OPS while leading the NL with 18 home runs and 56 RBI. Ozuna also ranked third in the majors with a 179 wRC+ and .444 wOBA.
The pace he was on during the small sample of this shortened season may not have been sustainable but it wasn’t a complete outlier. Ozuna is a two-time All-Star who bashed a career-high 37 home runs and drove in 124 RBI in 2017 to earn a Silver Slugger award.
Ozuna’s Statcast data puts him among the league’s elite sluggers, with 97th percentile hard-hit rate and 96th percentile exit velocity. He set career-highs in both categories this year but he’s been within the top 10 percent of the league for most of his career.
Ozuna made quite an impression in his first visit to Fenway Park this summer, hitting .429 with four home runs and eight RBI in the three-game series. It’s a small sample and he won’t have the benefit of facing Boston’s pitching staff if he signs with the Red Sox but it’s clear that he’s capable of monster production in this ballpark.
His defensive limitations would force the Red Sox to reconfigure their outfield but it could also suppress Ozuna’s price tag. MLB Trade Rumors predicted a 4-year, $72 million deal for Ozuna compared to a 5-year, $125 million deal for Springer.
Shopping in free agency always comes with the risk of overpaying for past performance rather than what we can expect moving forward. That risk is more prevalent for Springer, who will turn 32 years old before the end of next season. Ozuna is more than a year younger, turning 30 this month, yet he’s predicted for a shorter contract at a lower average annual value.
Another feather in the cap of Ozuna is that he’s unburdened by the weight of a qualifying offer. The Red Sox would need to sacrifice their second-highest draft pick in order to sign Springer. The Atlanta Braves were unable to extend a qualifying offer to Ozuna since he declined one from the St. Louis Cardinals the previous year.
Which outfielder should the Red Sox choose?
Springer is the superior all-around player and a cleaner fit to replace Bradley Jr. in center field. He won’t be cheap and that’s always a concern for players on the wrong side of 30 but he’s probably worth the price.
Ozuna is younger and possibly cheaper, especially when you factor in that he won’t cost Boston a draft pick. If the Red Sox are confident that Benintendi can be a passable center fielder, or that Duran will be ready to supplant him in the near future, then Ozuna would be the preferred choice.
That choice hinders on several assumptions though. Springer is a safer option since what he brings to the table helps solidify the role for everyone else in the lineup and on the field. Ozuna is potentially the better option if the Red Sox manage to figure out how everyone else fits around him.