After the events of last August and the winter the Red Sox roster has taken on a whole new look. With a bumper crop of prospects nearing the majors and Jacoby Ellsbury entering free agency at the end of the season the lineup could undergo a number of changes in 2014 as well. For now however, the biggest issue facing John Farrell when he fills out his lineup card is the absence of David Ortiz, still recovering from the achilles injury that cost him much of the second half last season.
Leading off: Jacoby Ellsbury, Center Field
John Farrell needs Ellsbury exactly where Terry Francona needed him, at the top of the lineup. It was in Francona’s final season that Ellsbury broke out for a monster .321/.376/.552 line with 32 home runs and 39 steals. The key with Ellsbury is, of course, will he stay healthy. The speedy center fielder’s MVP caliber season as sandwiched by two injury-plagued campaigns that saw Ellsbury play a total of 92 games between them.
In the two hole: Dustin Pedroia, Second Base
Pedroia turned in his worst season with the Red Sox last year while hitting “just” .290/.347/.449 and showing the Red Sox how tremendously valuable and consistent he has been in the past. However, Pedroia battled injuries early in the season and from July 1 on hit .319/.372/.511. Healthy and hitting in Spring Training, Pedroia is ready to help bring the Red Sox back to respectability.
Batting third: Mike Napoli, First Base/DH
Napoli looked like a great bounce-back candidate when the Red Sox were first rumored to have signed him to a three-year, $39 million deal but injury scares eventually reduced that contract to just one year with a base of $5 million and a maximum of $13 million. The former Angel and Ranger followed up his .320/.414/.631 2011 campaign with a .227/.343/.469 season last year. Hopefully with his immediate health issues taken care of, Napoli can settle in at first (or DH while Big Papi is sidelined) and put up the type of performance everyone expected in 2012.
Cleanup: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Catcher
After the first three spots in the lineup the Red Sox have a lot of options, but Salty has seen some time in the cleanup spot during Spring Training and may get the nod during the regular season as well. The catcher has put up an on-base percentage of .288 in each of the last two years but has also clubbed 41 home runs over the same time frame. He’d be the power guy holding down the fourth spot in the lineup.
Batting Fifth: Will Middlebrooks, Third Base
It’s hard to remember that Middlebrooks hasn’t even spent a full season with the Red Sox yet. The power-hitting third baseman missed the end of the season with a wrist injury but in 75 games put up a .288/.325/.509 line while hitting 15 home runs. He could make a fine cleanup hitter too and maybe while waiting for Ortiz, he’ll get that chance.
Batting Sixth: Shane Victorino, Right Field
Victorino has been with Team USA the last week or so and like many players in this lineup is looking to return to something closer to his 2011 (.279/.355/.491) than his 2012 (.255/.321/.383). While his .491 slugging in ‘11 topped his previous high by .044 and is unlikely to return, the Sox new right fielder has a career .341 OBP. Depending on how much power and patience the Hawaiian is showing, Farrell can either put him towards the top of the lineup or somewhere in the middle. With at least 34 steals in four of the last six seasons, including 39 last year, his speed can be utilized well even slotted further down as a type of “second leadoff man” for the bottom of the lineup.
Batting Seventh: Stephen Drew, Shortstop or Jonny Gomes/Daniel Nava, Left Field
Unfortunately Stephen Drew is still recovering from a concussion suffered last week and has yet to be cleared by Major League Baseball to return to action. However, given the players who should occupy spots one through six, the soonest Drew could bat would be seventh. In his last full season, 2010, Drew hit .278/.352/.458 with 15 home runs and chipped in 10 steals. Coming back from injuries, the speed probably isn’t there but given that he still hit 7 home runs in 79 games last season, Drew could be a nice source of power in the bottom third of the lineup.
Batting Eighth: Jonny Gomes/Daniel Nava, Left Field or Lyle Overbay, First Base
The left field platoon of Gomes and Nava will probably fall in the seventh or eighth spot of the lineup. Both players have their flaws and strengths and simply having major league bats in eight lineup spots shouldn’t be understated. Depending on Ortiz, Nava’s experimentation with first base, and Lyle Overbay, it’s possible that Gomes and Nava are both in the lineup at times, and could be flipped based on Farrell’s tactical thoughts.
Batting Ninth: Jose Iglesias, Shortstop or Lyle Overbay, First Base
If Drew isn’t ready to go at short, Iglesias will likely begin the season in the majors and would be the most obvious candidate to hit ninth. With the roster not fully formed yet, this is actually the trickiest spot to fill during the Ortiz absence, which says a lot. The team has come a long way since the end of 2012 and even the remains of Lyle Overbay, coming off a .259/.331/.397 2012 is still not terrible to hid at the bottom of the roster.
The biggest lesson here: the Red Sox are the most underrated they have been in a decade. While a few players need to show that 2012 isn’t their new level of performance, some simply by avoiding injury in 2013, there is a lot of potential talent here. Even without David Ortiz this is not the lineup that limped through August and September. With a bit of luck, this lineup should more than hold its own, putting the pressure on the rotation.
Cross posted to Sports of Boston