Red Sox outfielder Alex Verdugo has been named the fourth-best center fielder in baseball headed into the 2021 season by MLB Network.
The 24-year-old, finishing behind the likes of Mike Trout, former teammate Cody Bellinger, and George Springer, only started one game in center field for Boston last year during his debut season with the club.
In said start, which came on the road against the Marlins on September 16, Verdugo went 1-for-1 in his defensive chances, recording a putout on a Miguel Rojas pop fly in the first inning of what would turn out to be an 8-4 defeat.
Per Baseball Savant, Rojas’ pop fly off of left-hander Mike Kickham left his bat with an exit velocity of 84.7 mph, giving Verdugo a 99% chance to catch it, which he did after jogging a few steps to his left.
Other than that, the rest of Verdugo’s playing time came in 2020 came in left or right field, where he did a decent job showing off his arm strength en route to recording seven outfield assists.
Prior to coming over from the Dodgers in that infamous trade last February, the former second-round draft pick patrolled center field quite a bit for Los Angeles in 2019.
Over a 61-game sample size (52 starts), Verdugo logged 475 2/3 innings in center, where he posted a positive-3 defensive runs saved as well as a 1.1 ultimate zone rating, which translates to an ultimate zone rating of 3.6 over 150 defensive games, per FanGraphs.
In that same stretch of games in center for the Dodgers, Verdugo was worth zero outs above average, according to Baseball Savant, which essentially means he was average at that position defensively.
Even with those numbers in mind, the Arizona native appears to be the frontrunner to become the Sox’ everyday center fielder in 2021.
This being the case because Jackie Bradley Jr. still remains unsigned while Andrew Benintendi could apparently be traded any day now.
Take those two options away, and outside of Verdugo, Hunter Renfroe, J.D. Martinez are the only other two outfielders on Boston’s 40-man roster who have major-league experience.
Having said all that, it’s safe to assume that The Shredder, MLB Network’s “player rating formula,” ran with the notion that Verdugo will fill the void left by Bradley Jr. come Opening Day in April.
Seeing how Bradley Jr. is a Gold Glove Award winner and one of, if not the best defensive center fielder in baseball, that could be a sizable void to fill, but Red Sox officials seem confident that Verdugo could handle it if given the opportunity.
“I think Verdugo’s probably the one who — if we were starting today — would probably be most suited to it,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said last month when asked who on the Red Sox could play center field on a consistent basis. “But, it’s just great to have a group of athletes that you feel confident that they could all cover it.”
Red Sox general manager and Bloom’s right-hand man Brian O’Halloran echoed this same sort of sentiment when speaking with reporters in early December.
“I think he did a really good job. He’s obviously a very athletic outfielder who moves around very well,” O’Halloran said of the fiery outfielder. “I have not seen him play center field, but I believe that he could do it. And in terms of evaluations, this year I thought he did a terrific job both offensively and defensively.”
Verdugo’s manager, Alex Cora, also expressed optimism that the 6-foot, 192. lb. left-handed hitter would be able to handle things as the anchor of the Red Sox outfield this coming season.
“We do believe that he’s athletic enough to do that,” said Cora, when appearing on MLB Network Radio in December. “He’s got the instincts. His first step is pretty good. He can do it… We do feel comfortable with Alex playing center field.”
There is still plenty of time for the Red Sox’ outfield outlook to change during these winter months, but for now, let’s just roll with the idea that Verdugo will be Boston’s Opening Day center fielder, likely batting leadoff or out of the two-hole.
(Picture of Alex Verdugo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images)