Victorino has setback; return on hold

SEATTLE -- Shane Victorino’s return to the Red Sox has encountered another snag, one that raises troubling questions about how much the 33-year-old outfielder can be expected to help the club the rest of the season.

Victorino, playing Tuesday in Pawtucket in what was to have been his final test before rejoining the Red Sox this weekend in New York, instead reported more discomfort in his lower back, and his return has been placed on hold.

On Saturday in New York, the Sox reach the midpoint of the 2014 season. To date, Victorino has made just 21 starts for the Sox. After missing the season’s first 22 games with a strained right hamstring that placed him on the disabled list, Victorino’s count of games missed during a second stint on the DL is 32 games and counting. He was placed on the DL the second time on May 24, and after an exceptional job of managing Victorino’s hamstring issues last season, when he played 122 games despite hamstring and back issues, the Sox medical staff has been unable to keep him on the field this season.

Victorino’s leg and back issues led the Philadelphia Phillies to cut ties with him in 2012, when they traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who subsequently acquired Carl Crawford from the Red Sox in a deal that left Victorino no place in the Dodgers’ plans going forward.

The Red Sox invited some criticism when they signed Victorino to a three-year, $39 million deal as a free agent after the 2012 season, but he responded with an exceptional performance in 2013, winning a Gold Glove in right field, hitting 15 home runs and stealing 21 bases.

But even last season, Victorino had health issues, making one trip to the DL with a strained left hamstring and missing a number of games with back stiffness. He also had thumb surgery in December.

The Sox brought him along slowly in spring training, trying to build up his core, but he strained the right hamstring in the team’s last exhibition of the season and has played sparingly since.

“He’s got some discomfort in his lower back area that’s going to keep him down for a couple of days,’’ manager John Farrell said. “That delays his return to us. We don’t have a time frame for that.’’

Victorino, who had been shut down over the weekend with back discomfort, played Monday in Lowell, then went 0-for-4 and played six innings for Pawtucket Tuesday night. He reported the discomfort after the game, Farrell said. “He felt the stiffness recurring, and this morning as well.’’

Besides the obvious value Victorino brings to the club, Farrell said the team was looking to add another right-handed bat to achieve better balance on the big-league roster. Depending on Victorino’s condition, an opportunity could open up for Mookie Betts, a right-handed hitting prospect who tore up Double A and has reached base safely in all 21 games in which he has played for Pawtucket.

The PawSox have also been using Betts, who began the season as a second baseman, in the outfield, and like Brock Holt with the Red Sox, he has handled the change of position well.

Another outfielder who might have figured into the mix, Bryce Brentz, has missed more than a month with a strained hamstring.

If Victorino can’t go, Betts would give the Sox a potential platoon option with Jackie Bradley Jr. and/or Daniel Nava in the Sox outfield.

Third baseman Will Middlebrooks, meanwhile, missed a third straight game in Pawtucket with continued swelling in his fractured right index finger.

* First baseman Mike Napoli was not in the starting lineup after fouling a ball off his left foot Wednesday. He had injured his left toe banging into a wall in Texas in early May.

* Farrell, asked if the plan is for Jake Peavy to make his next start, answered, “For now.” That suggests: Stay tuned.