The Boston Red Sox created a big buzz around baseball this week when they signed free agent infielders Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to long-term contracts. With Xander Bogaerts entrenched as the team's starting shortstop for the considerable future, the Red Sox have already announced that Ramirez will be the team's primary leftfielder next season.
While unconventional, this move makes sense for a lot of reasons. Ramirez is an excellent hitter who sported a .283/.369/.448 slashline in 512 plate appearances for the Los Angeles Dodgers last season. He is a career .300/.373/.500 hitter with six 20-homer seasons under his belt before age 30. Those types of offensive numbers translate to any position on the diamond.
Ramirez is also a poor defender at shortstop, to the point where many teams were expecting him to move to third base if they signed him. Moving him to left field eliminates any negative value he might have created at short. Additionally, Fenway Park's quirky dimensions play to his strengths. With the Green Monster behind him, Hanley has less territory to cover and his strong arm will help deter some players from stretching singles into potential doubles.
This move isn't entirely unprecedented, however. In fact, the Red Sox saw a shortstop-turned-leftfielder in action just over one year ago while on their way to the 2013 World Series title. Jhonny Peralta was the Tigers' starting leftfielder in four of the six ALCS games that year, and his .898 postseason OPS more than made up for any defensive miscues he made.
Back in the present, the Tigers are again "stuck" with two shortstops on their roster. Defensive wunderkind Jose Iglesias is expected to be the starter, while Eugenio Suarez could either fill a utility role, or spend part of the 2015 season in the minor leagues. However, with holes abounding in the outfield and nothing but left-handed hitters elsewhere on the bench, could the Tigers benefit from playing Suarez in left field?
Before we get too far, let's dispel the idea that Suarez would be a full-time starter in the outfield. His offensive profile isn't strong enough for a corner outfield position, and unless he's a revelation defensively, he would be a below average player at best. He hit just .242/.316/.336 in 277 plate appearances last season. He was worth 0.7 WAR largely thanks to his defense, which was around league average.
Suarez's minor league numbers and platoon splits suggest that he could hold his own in a part-time role though. He is a career .309/.382/.521 hitter against left-handed pitching in the minors, and that includes a .936 OPS against lefties across all levels in 2014. At the big league level, Suarez walked 9.1 percent of the time against left-handed pitchers compared to 7.3 percent against righties. Even more encouraging was his 19.2 percent strikeout rate against lefties, down from 27 percent against righties. If he could muster a .750 OPS as an outfielder, the Tigers could focus on finding him a platoon partner instead of overspending for a full-time leftfielder.
Defensively, one would think that Suarez is athletic enough to make the switch. He showed decent speed and range in the infield, and his arm looks strong enough to play in left field. A defensive outfield of Suarez, Rajai Davis, and J.D. Martinez may seem scary, but their collective offensive upside against left-handed pitching could outweigh the negative value defensively.
Like using Drew Smyly as a bullpen arm in 2013 -- particularly for that stretch when Smyly was a long reliever -- putting Suarez in left field diminishes his value somewhat. This isn't a permanent solution, and should really only be considered if Suarez forces the Tigers to take him north after Spring Training. Smyly was simply too good to leave in Toledo in 2013. Suarez needs to demonstrate the same in 2015, otherwise he may be better served to refine his approach in the International League.
Using Suarez as a part-time outfielder would improve the versatility of the Tigers' roster. In essence, Suarez could function as a poor man's version of Ben Zobrist or Tony Phillips, playing the infield and outfield at a higher level than a Don Kelly-type utility man. Suarez doesn't quite have the offensive upside of Zobrist or Phillips, but at a league minimum salary, the Tigers could fill multiple holes in a cheap manner without completely sacrificing production in the process.