The Boston Red Sox enter the 2017 season with the same outfield they ended 2016 with — Andrew Benintendi in left field, Jackie Bradley, Jr. in center, and Mookie Betts in right.
That’s a formidable outfield. The Red Sox boast a consensus top-five prospect in Benintendi, a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder with 25-home run power in Bradley, and the MVP runner-up in Betts. You could argue all three are improving; Benintendi is still just 22, Bradley will turn 27 in April, and Betts will be 24 all season. That’s two players still entering their primes and one firmly in the middle of it. As far as starting outfields go, it’s one of the best in all of baseball.
But is it the best?
Answering that question requires a rundown of the other 29 teams, but several can be tossed away right off the bat. Without getting bogged down in the details, the following teams really can’t claim any sort of overall outfield superiority:
Baltimore, New York (AL), Chicago (AL), Minnesota, Detroit, Oakland, Texas, Houston (they nearly made the next cut, but Carlos Beltran is a DH), Seattle, Atlanta, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Los Angeles (NL — sorry, having the most outfielders doesn’t mean the best), San Francisco, New York (NL), San Diego, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati.
There are also a few teams that only barely make the next cut; Toronto has something with Kevin Pillar and Jose Bautista, but left field with Melvin Upton/Ezequiel Carrera isn’t going to cut it. Tampa Bay’s Colby Rasmus/Kevin Kiermaier/Steven Souza is pretty good, but overall simply not up to snub. Same goes for the Cubs, who have an offensive black hole in right field and possibly a defensive black hole in left. The Diamondbacks boast AJ Pollock and David Peralta, but Yasmany Tomas is unproven and poor with his glove.
That’s 22 of the 29 remaining teams and leaves us with the following outfields to dissect: Kansas City, Cleveland, Los Angeles (AL), Miami, Washington, Pittsburgh, and Colorado.
So how do they compare to the Red Sox?
Cleveland is an interesting case with Michael Brantley, Tyler Naquin, and the combination of Brandon Guyer and Lonnie Chisenhall. But there’s no real way to know what you’re getting in Brantley after a missed season, and Naquin has little track record. If you consider Naquin and Benintendi a wash, and even say Brantley and Bradley are basically a wash both in terms of skill and reliability (Brantley with his health, Bradley with his consistency), you’re left with Betts vs. Chisenhall/Guyer. Boston wins that matchup.
Washington and Pittsburgh both end up with the same problem. Two-thirds of each of their outfields can be considered very good to excellent — Adam Eaton and Bryce Harper, Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte. But the third outfielders — Jayson Werth and Andrew McCutchen — open too many questions as both appear on the wrong side of the aging curve. With Boston’s biggest outfield question mark on the rise and Pittsburgh’s and Washington’s on the downslide, it’s not impossible (or even all that difficult) to imagine Benintendi being better this season than either Werth of McCutchen. Add that neither of those players is any good with the glove, and Boston gets the edge.
Kansas City’s Alex Gordon/Lorenzo Cain/Jorge Soler outfield is damn good, both offensively and defensively. But Soler brings the latter category down while remaining a but of an enigma offensively. If you cancel his uncertainty out with Benintendi’s, you’re left with Bradley/Betts vs. Cain/Gordon. Ignoring the fact that one or both could end the season elsewhere, Cain is 31 and coming off his worst OPS+ in three years; Gordon is 33 and coming off his worst OPS+ since 2010. Both remain good outfielders, but if they continue to decline as they move through their 30s while the Boston outfielders move into their primes, what is a close matchup could get much less close as 2017 moves on. Give Boston the edge there.
We’re down to three teams — the Angels, Marlins, and Rockies — to try to wrestle the title of baseball’s best outfield from the Red Sox.
The Angels come very, very close with Mike Trout in center and the underrated Kole Calhoun in right, but Cameron Maybin in left field brings the overall grade down. He’s coming off an excellent, albeit injury-marred, season in Detroit, but has played 100 games just once since 2013. He’s had an OPS+ of 100 or better just twice in his career (not counting his eight games in 2008). If he plays like he did in 2016 or even 2011, this becomes a close argument; it’s just hard to expect him to do so. Trout nearly brings the entire grade up enough to match Boston’s — nearly.
Colorado’s outfield is incredibly similar to Boston’s. David Dahl is their version of Benintendi, a highly-ranked prospect who looked great in a short MLB sample. Charlie Blackmon in center, like Bradley, is coming off his finest season. Carlos Gonzalez in right field is, or at least was, an MVP candidate.
Miami is nearly identical. Christian Yelich is their young up-and-comer, though he’s certainly more established than someone like Benintendi. Marcel Ozuna is their Bradley, a player who appeared to finally cash in on his great potential last season. Giancarlo Stanton and Betts are two of the game’s best.
Because of these striking similarities, it’s tough to declare any one of Boston, Colorado, and Miami the “best.” Do you trust Benintendi more, or Dahl? Do you think Ozuna or Bradley will be more likely to continue building on 2016’s success? Do you think Stanton, Gonzalez, or Betts will prove most valuable in 2017?
Take each team’s best player — Betts, Stanton, Gonzalez — and chances are, when looking at overall play, that’s the order you’d rank them in, too. Each team’s young(ish) unknown — Benintendi, Yelich, Dahl — is a borderline toss-up, though Yelich gets points for experience. Each team’s “Did it click?” guy — Bradley, Ozuna, Blackmon — comes with great strengths as well as plenty of question marks.
So what’s the answer? Who has the best outfield in baseball? The Red Sox, Marlins, and Rockies do. From there, it’s all about how you view the players in question. When it comes to the Red Sox, though, one thing is certain — if their top prospect continues to play and grow like one, and if Bradley’s 2017 season resembles his 2016 (and particularly his first half), Boston has as good an outfield as anyone.