1. Jacoby Ellsbury (CF)
Jacoby Ellsbury is the obvious choice to continue duties at the leadoff spot for the Red Sox in 2012.
After a fantastic 2011 season, with a .321 batting average, 32 home runs, 105 RBI and 39 stolen bases, good enough for second place in the AL MVP voting, I don’t see a reason for Bobby Valentine and the Red Sox to make any changes at the top of the batting order.
In a lineup marred by uncertainty and a slew of changes via trades, Ellsbury remains one of the rocks for this Red Sox team. After an MVP-caliber season a season ago, it makes sense to keep Ellsbury in the leadoff spot, where he’s comfortable.
2. Dustin Pedroia (2B)
Dustin Pedroia has consistently been a player for the Red Sox who can be relied upon to give 110 percent in every inning of every game.
Again, with so much uncertainty surrounding next year’s team (for reasons that will soon be addressed), it’s nice that the Sox have such reliable players at the top of their order.
Pedroia has shown over his career that he’s equally comfortable setting the table for other RBI guys as he is at being an RBI man himself. He’ll certainly have a reliable hitter behind him insuring that both he and Ellsbury will score plenty of runs.
3. Adrian Gonzalez (1B)
Not much to say here. Gonzalez paralleled Ellsbury last season, having an MVP-caliber year in his first season as a member of the Red Sox.
Boston will once again rely very heavily on Gonzalez for the majority of their offensive production, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Gonzalez goes on to win the 2012 AL MVP.
4. Kevin Youkilis (3B)
After struggling through injuries last season, the Red Sox will rely on a healthy Youkilis to anchor the batting order once again. The responsibility of the hitter batting behind Gonzalez will be a big one, and slotting the veteran Youkilis into this position makes the most sense.
Known as the “Greek God of Walks,” Youk’s ability to bother pitchers by working the count and getting on base will be a huge asset behind the team’s best hitter. This will prove especially true if opposing teams decide that pitching around Gonzalez is their best option.
5. David Ortiz (DH)
After the Red Sox maintain Ortiz through arbitration by figuring out what figure Ortiz will receive, he will be back as the regular DH once again.
Ortiz put up great numbers last season for the Sox after two seasons of appearing to be on the decline.
Big Papi sported a .309 average, 29 homers and 96 RBI a season ago, and if the Sox can get that kind of production out of the middle of their batting order once again, it’s safe to say that new general manager Ben Cherington will be pleased.
6. Carl Crawford (LF)
After learning that Crawford had arthroscopic surgery on his wrist, his slot in the lineup may not only fall down in the order, but he may not even be healthy enough to play on opening day.
Admittedly, this is the last thing Red Sox fans wanted to hear going into the 2012 season.
Crawford had an abysmal year in his first season in Boston; there’s simply no light way to put it. He stole just 18 bases (a career low since his rookie year in which he played only 63 games), he hit .255 (a career low) and he struck out 104 times while drawing just 23 walks.
Despite all of those ugly stats, Red Sox Nation knows how dynamic a player Crawford can be. Fans were willing to look at the silver lining, which is that Crawford could return to his usual form of hitting over .300 and stealing over 50 bases. However, the news of this wrist surgery puts fans right back under a gray cloud.
Crawford was a huge X-factor going into next season as the guy who could have a bounce-back season, return to form and help lead this team back to the playoffs.
After the surgery, it’s not even certain that Crawford will be on the field to start the season. Overall, this is a depressing setback for a player who needed to have a lot of positive vibes going into next season.
Fans will have to wait and see if Crawford will be what Tampa Bay Rays fans remember or what Red Sox fans lament.
7. Jarrod Saltalammachia (C)
The catcher position is self-explanatory for next season. Whether or not the Red Sox decide to re-sign Jason Varitek for another season, Saltalammachia will be the regular starter for this team.
He could have a big job ahead of him going into next season with regards to handling the pitching staff. Outside of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, there’s still uncertainty as to who the fourth and fifth starters will be when the season rolls around.
8. Darnell McDonald/Ryan Sweeney (RF)
After trading their outfield prospect, Josh Reddick, to the Oakland A’s for Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney, the bullpen depth got much deeper, but the outfield depth for the Red Sox has become quite thin. Especially when you throw in the news that outfielder Ryan Kalish had surgery on his left shoulder to repair a labrum tear.
Unless the Red Sox go out and make a move to acquire an outfielder in free agency, they should go with a platoon of McDonald and Sweeney.
In my original article, I had the Red Sox signing free agent outfielder Ryan Ludwick to take over the duties in right, but Ludwick recently signed with the Cincinnati Reds, so he's no longer an option.
Both McDonald and Sweeney would play solid defense out in right (Sweeney has only committed four errors in his career, while McDonald is one of the best in baseball at throwing out baserunners), so I believe it comes down to playing the lefty/righty matchup between the two. Sweeney (a left-handed hitter) could play against right-handed pitching, while McDonald could play against left-handers.
McDonald struggled last season in limited time, but he won over many members of Red Sox Nation a season before when the Sox called him up from AAA to see his incredibly clutch performance against the Texas Rangers, hitting a game-tying home run and a game-winning single in the same game.
Sweeney, while he has never sported impressive power numbers in his career (his season high has been six homers), he has a career .342 on-base percentage, which could really help down at the bottom of the lineup.
9. Nick Punto/Mike Aviles/Jose Iglesias (SS)
The Red Sox also traded Jed Lowrie earlier in the offseason to add much-needed bullpen depth, acquiring Mark Melancon from the Houston Astros. After the trade, the Red Sox signed Nick Punto to replace Lowrie on the roster.
Playing Punto at shortstop everyday makes sense given that he plays great defense and makes a habit of getting on base (he had a .388 on-base percentage last season for the St. Louis Cardinals).
However, Punto played in just 63 games last season for the World Series champion Cardinals, and only 88 games a season before that for the Minnesota Twins. Whether or not he could stay healthy and put up consistent numbers over the course of a 162-game season remains to be seen.
Punto did play 150 games for the Twins in 2007, but he hit just .210. For this reason, I think Punto will split time at the position with Mike Aviles.
However, if one (or both) of these players struggle in the upcoming season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Red Sox give prospect Jose Iglesias a shot at the position.
I brought this up in my previous article, stating that while Iglesias has struggled at the plate in the minors, he would play stellar defense at short.
Many critics believe that Iglesias needs more time in the minors to develop his offensive game (and I tend to agree), but with the trade of Scutaro, Iglesias’ opportunity in the majors may come sooner rather than later.
Injuries, trades, the negative mojo coming off last season’s September collapse; these are all reasons why the Red Sox don’t yet appear to be a team with championship swagger.
Revolving doors at the outfield and shortstop positions may hinder the Red Sox going forward, but more changes may still occur.
It has been rumored that the trade of Scutaro was meant to free up his six million dollar salary to make a run at either outfielder Cody Ross or starting pitcher Roy Oswalt. While adding Oswalt would be a positive for anchoring the question marks in the rotation, the Red Sox have already made an effort to bring in Vicente Padilla, Carlos Silva and Aaron Cook to compete for a starting job (possibly even with Alfredo Aceves, who had such a great year out of the bullpen for the Sox last season).
Bringing in so many different options to compete for a starting job would be pointless if the Sox decided to bring in Oswalt. If the Red Sox did add Oswalt, they could conceivably move Daniel Bard back to the bullpen instead of converting him to a starter, which would give them even more bullpen depth then they have already acquired.
No matter what they decide, at least Cherington feels confident.
If they decide to sign Ross, he could immediately become the everyday starter in right field.
The obvious positive for this team moving forward is the steady core of Ellsbury, Pedroia, Gonzalez, a healthy Youkilis and Ortiz. Question marks in the outfield and at shortstop may still need to be addressed before opening day, but the trades the Red Sox have already made have bolstered the bullpen from lackluster to what appears to be one of the deepest in all of baseball.
Only time will tell how good this team will be in 2012.