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Crawford Shakes Up Boston’s Outfield

A common complaint among baseball fans is that the teams with the highest payrolls will often sign the best free agents. The Boston Red Sox added some legitimacy to that notion after signing Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million deal on Thursday. While every team can use Carl Crawford’s talents, it’s not as if Boston had a gaping hole at any of their outfield spots. With Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron returning from injury-plagued seasons, and J.D. Drew manning right field; this signing didn’t really fill a need for the Red Sox.

Despite that, it’s clear that Carl Crawford represents a large upgrade over each of the Red Sox outfield options. The Red Sox can only start three outfielders, however, and this move will likely shift a very useful outfielder to the bench.

Signed as a free agent last season, Mike Cameron’s first year as a Red Sox was riddled with injuries. Cameron was only able to amass 180 plate appearances, and posted a negative UZR for only the second time in his career. Typically known as an excellent defender, it’s unclear whether last year’s struggles were a result of his injuries or signs of aging. Age is certainly a concern with Cameron (he will be 38 next season), but based on his history it would be wise to give him another chance in center field before assuming he’s finished.

When healthy, J.D. Drew is a valuable commodity. For all the criticisms about his health, Drew has played in nearly 140 games every season since he signed with the Red Sox (140, 109, 137, 139). Much like Cameron, Drew also has a reputation as an above average fielder. Drew is set to earn $14 million next season, so it’s unlikely the Red Sox would make him a part time player while paying him so much money.

That leaves Jacoby Ellsbury, who also suffered through an injury-riddled 2010. Before last season, Ellsbury was viewed as the future of Boston’s outfield. With Crawford in the picture, it’s unclear what role Ellsbury will play in 2011. Due to his contract and age, Ellsbury could be an attractive trade chip. As there likely isn’t a market for Cameron or Drew, Ellsbury is the only outfielder the Red Sox can trade that would bring in a significant haul. Both Cameron and Drew will be free agents after the season, however, so the Red Sox may not want to part with a player who still has a role in the team’s future.

Should the Red Sox keep all four of their outfielders, it’s likely that they would all receive playing time. Due to their advanced ages, Cameron and Drew could benefit from a weekly off day. This would allow Terry Francona to insert Ellsbury into the lineup 2-3 times per week. Since Drew has a history of missing games, Ellsbury would be a great injury replacement option as well.

The Red Sox do have another option that Francona should consider, however. David Ortiz has struggled against left-handed pitching over his career, leading to a .222 batting average against LHP last season. Francona could choose to sit Ortiz against lefties in favor of starting one of his outfielders as the DH. This strategy also allows Francona to keep Cameron and Drew healthy as the season progresses.

While Crawford’s signing ultimately improves the Red Sox, it could also create some tension over playing time. Even though it will be difficult to fully satisfy each player involved, Francona has some interesting options when it comes to constructing his lineup. Considering all the players involved, it’s a good problem to have.