Over the coming weeks, MLB.com will be taking a position-by-position look at the teams in the American League East. This week, it's the outfielders.
NEW YORK -- The outfields of the three top teams in the AL East -- the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox -- all have question marks heading into the 2020 season, making the selection of the best in the division rather difficult. There are new faces in the mix for Tampa Bay, issues of health and durability among the Yankees' regulars and a big question in Boston about its best outfielder -- will Mookie Betts even be wearing a Red Sox uniform when Opening Day arrives?
For now, Betts remains a member of the Red Sox, so until that changes, Boston is the club with the most certain outfield production in the AL East.
The best: Red Sox
Most baseball experts believe the Yankees will dominate at every position on the field this year, but the Red Sox's outfield is the best in the AL East, provided they keep everyone together.
Betts is a star in every facet of the game. While left fielder Andrew Benintendi is coming off a down year, he is an outstanding athlete and skilled hitter likely to bounce back in 2020, and center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. is an electrifying defender, capable of tracking down anything in his general vicinity. Though Bradley is inconsistent at the plate, he has 20-homer power that plays well in the bottom third of the batting order.
The outfield has flexibility, too, with Benintendi capable of manning center field and J.D. Martinez, usually the designated hitter, an option to play the corner-outfield spots when one of the starters needs a rest.
With the Red Sox still trying to get under the luxury-tax threshold, there’s a chance Betts or Bradley could get traded before Opening Day. Both players are entering their walk years. But until then, Boston is the pick for best outfield in the division.
The rest (in alphabetical order)
Toronto’s outfield still needs sorting out in Spring Training, both in terms of depth options and who will start in center field. What we do know is Randal Grichuk, Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. are locked in to the three primary outfield spots. But without a natural center fielder -- something the Blue Jays explored adding this offseason -- nothing is set in stone just yet positionally. Hernandez started 72 games in center last year and came on strong with the bat down the stretch, but Grichuk didn’t trail far behind in center-field starts with 56. Gurriel, who likely opens the year back in left field, posted an .869 OPS and surprised many with his smooth transition to the outfield last season, but he will need to stay healthy after dealing with injuries in each of his first two MLB seasons.
Beyond those names, the Blue Jays are looking at Derek Fisher, Billy McKinney, Anthony Alford and Jonathan Davis as reserves, and the 26th roster spot could certainly be a factor here if the club is looking to add some athleticism or bench flexibility. There will still be plenty of opportunities for the outfield reserves who do win jobs, too, given the likelihood that manager Charlie Montoyo cycles players through the DH spot.
If they can stay healthy and build on their breakout 2019 seasons, the Orioles’ outfielders have a strong chance to be the strength of the team. Anthony Santander was promoted in June and took advantage of his first extended look in the Majors, homering 20 times in 93 games and finishing the year as Baltimore’s regular No. 3 hitter. Austin Hays was a surprise September callup and thrilled in a small sample, socking four homers and making several highlight-reel-worthy plays in center field. Trey Mancini was simply one of the best hitters in the American League, batting .291/.364/.535 with 35 homers and a 135 OPS+.
The Rays benefited from a breakout season by Austin Meadows, who hit 33 home runs and was an All-Star for the first time in his career. Meadows often served as the team’s designated hitter in 2019, but will be asked to be the everyday right fielder in 2020 because of the additions of Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and José Martínez, who are limited defensively. The next challenge for Meadows will be to replicate the success he had a season ago.
In center field, the Rays will have Kevin Kiermaier, who won his third Gold Glove Award last season. While he doesn’t provide a ton of offense, Kiermaier gives the Rays an elite defender in the outfield.
With Tommy Pham now in San Diego, the Rays will have a different look in left field this season. Hunter Renfroe, whom the Rays acquired from the Padres in the Pham deal, will get the majority of the reps at the position. Renfroe is an underrated defender in the outfield and possesses a strong arm. He also smashed 33 home runs in 2019, which should help a Rays offense that is in need for more offensive production.
The Yankees enter 2020 forecasting big production from their outfield corners, banking on full seasons from superstar sluggers Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge. Even though he appeared in only 102 regular-season games, Judge belted 27 homers and tallied 55 RBIs, compiling a .921 OPS and a 143 OPS+. Stanton’s second year in New York was essentially a wash, as injuries limited him to 18 regular-season games, one year after he paced the club with 38 homers and 100 RBIs.
As the Yankees’ longest-tenured player, Brett Gardner’s return provides continuity and a capable defender in center field, something they will lean upon while Aaron Hicks recovers from Tommy John surgery. Gardner was a key to the Yanks’ success last year, setting career highs in homers (28) and RBIs (74). Mike Tauchman’s ability to defend at all three outfield spots adds appealing depth, while Clint Frazier figures to compete for reps in the corners.
If there was more certainty about Stanton and Judge at the corner spots, the Yankees would no doubt be the pick as the division’s top outfield, but for now that remains to be seen.