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August 24. 2014 12:51AM

Dave D'Onfrio's Sox Beat: Boston Red Sox outfield may be in flux

WHEN A major-league team pledges seven years and more than $72 million to a player, it's most often done as some measure of solution. It's usually plugging a hole, or shoring up an issue. It's not break-the-bank money by today's big-league standards, especially for a big-market team, but in duration and dollars it's typically a cornerstone type of commitment.

But in the case of the Red Sox and Rusney Castiillo, the Cuban defector who the club has reportedly signed to those terms, the addition only adds intrigue to an outfield that is in such a state of disjointed flux that it will be fascinating to follow as the hot stove heats up this winter - and leaves just a single certainty about the situation heading into the offseason: nothing is certain.

The need for improvement at the three positions was readily evident in the numbers that suggest the Sox outfield as the least productive in the American League - with all of 18 homers and a .646 on-base plus slugging before Saturday - and general manager Ben Cherington has acted accordingly since deciding to hold a firesale just prior to the non-waiver trade deadline.

Before giving Castillo the richest contract ever paid to a defector, he acquired former All-Stars Yoenis Cespedes and Allen Craig. Just last week he promoted Mookie Betts, a converted infielder, in large part to give him a long look in center field.

None of those four was a piece of the plan for Boston's 2015 outfield when the season began, but all four are under contract next season - and so are the three who, for all intent and purpose arrived at spring training this season as the Sox' starting outfield on most days.

That includes Jackie Bradley Jr., who was sent back to Triple-A to work on his swing, but may yet win a Gold Glove this season for his mastery in center field. Daniel Nava, who through Friday had hit .315 with a .384 on-base percentage since the start of June. And Shane Victorino, who missed most of this year due to injury, but is owed $13 million next season.

That's seven players for three starting jobs, and doesn't even factor in Brock Holt, the super-utility man who has proven himself capable in left, right or center, and whose versatility could mitigate the need for the Sox to carry more than one backup outfielder on their active roster.

Yet even with so many apparent options, it's not necessarily a complementary collection, and as a unit it remains full of flaws. On a team that currently projects to start an entirely right-handed hitting infield, and a righty catcher, five of the seven outfield sticks swing from the right side, too.

All three center field options - Bradley, Betts and Castillo - are unproven. Craig isn't good enough defensively to play right at Fenway Park, and hasn't hit enough this season to think he'd regularly supplant Mike Napoli at first base.

Cespedes is apparently resistant to the idea of moving from left to right. Victorino's health isn't reliable. In a lineup starving for pop, Nava began Saturday with two homers this season, and four since June of 2013.

And in a lineup that sorely lacked a leadoff man until he emerged, Holt could swipe playing time and force his way into regular playing time with his ability to hit atop the order.

In theory, Castillo addresses a number of these issues. He is a speedster, and scouts are said to have been impressed by his raw power during a late-July showcase attended by all 30 major-league teams. He hasn't played organized baseball in more than a year, but the line-drive hitter boasted a .377 on-base percentage over his final season (2012-13) in Cuba.

If all that translates, and the in-his-prime 27-year-old adjusts quickly to the big leagues, he should be well worth his ticket of $12 million annually.

But he is no cure-all, and even with him the Sox outfield is far from perfect - and maybe just as far from finished in its reconstruction.

At this point, Cherington has decidedly more assets than answers, and it's the Meriden native's job to strike a better balance in that ratio between now and February, which may well require the boldness that's come to define his reign as the Red Sox' GM.

Here's one pie-in-the-sky scenario on how that could play out. Craig, due $25.5 million over the next three seasons, is traded to a midmarket club who could give him more opportunities at first base or DH.

The Sox eat half of the dough due Victorino and send him to a National League team that could use a good defender and part-time sparkplug. Bradley and Betts begin next season in the minors. Nava, eminently cheap and effective, sticks at least as the fourth outfielder.Unimpressed by the free-agent offerings, Cherington uses his surplus of young pitching to acquire a decent veteran (if uninspiring) outfielder - then tries to land an even bigger fish, per se, and puts his two Cubans, Cespedes and Castillo, in a prospect-filled package for Miami's Giancarlo Stanton.

The Marlins could afford both of those players, they'd be popular cornerstones in Little Havana, and the Red Sox would have a star they're said to covet.With Stanton's thunder in left, living with Bradley's bat in center becomes more tolerable. Then add a veteran in right if Craig and Victorino are both gone, plus Nava and Betts at the ready if needed, and suddenly the roster makes much more sense. Suddenly it looks functional. Suddenly it seems close to being fixed.

Or at least closer than it got with the $72.5 million spent this week.

Koji Uehara had allowed 10 earned runs on the season entering Friday's save opportunity - when he was tagged for five runs and blew his third save of the season. It marked the third consecutive outing in which Uehara had been touched for a run, elevating his earned run average from 1.27 to 2.28 in less than a week.

Entering Saturday he'd allowed 15 hits in his last 9.2 innings, perhaps an indication that the 39-year-old is showing signs of the fatigue that the club has feared since acquiring him prior to 2013.

That said, and considering the club's reluctance to trade him prior to the July 31 deadline was an indication it plans to extend him a qualifying offer (of likely around $15 million for one season) at the end of the year, it might be in Boston's best interest to shut him down for a period of time to help preserve and prolong him for next year.

Give those save opportunities to Edward Mujica and there may be an ancillary benefit, too. He has a 0.71 ERA in 16 games since the All-Star break, so perhaps a strong performance as a closer would entice a team to trade for him (and the $4.75 million owed him) over the winter.

Stat of the week: After Uehara's blown save resulted in Boston's sixth straight loss, the Sox entered Saturday tied with the Cubs for the fifth-worst record in baseball. They were 2½ games away from the third-worst record, held by the Diamondbacks, which would give them the third pick in June's draft. The Sox haven't drafted higher than seventh since taking Mike Garman at No. 3 in 1967.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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