Predicting What the Boston Red Sox's Starting Lineup Will Look Like Next Year

Ian CasselberryMLB Lead WriterAugust 28, 2012

Predicting What the Boston Red Sox's Starting Lineup Will Look Like Next Year

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    With Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto shipped off to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Boston Red Sox are certainly going to look like a different team next season. 

    All four of those players need to be replaced. Finding a starting first baseman, left fielder and starting pitcher won't be easy. But the Red Sox obviously have much more financial flexibility after clearing $262.5 million (according to Biz of Baseball's Maury Brown) off their payroll. 

    With the franchise hitting the reset button, the Red Sox front office and ownership have the opportunity to change their way of doing business and adopt a different philosophy of roster construction. Player development will be emphasized over handing out big contracts.

    Any Red Sox fans hoping the team might make a run at Josh Hamilton or Zack Greinke during the offseason will probably be disappointed. That doesn't mean there aren't plenty of other options for Boston to explore. While the names might not be as flashy, they could provide a better value and allow the Red Sox to better build for the future.

    What will the Red Sox starting lineup look like next season? Much of the roster will look as it did this year, of course, but we'll speculate on a few players the team could add.

    We look forward to your feedback and suggestions for moves Boston could make. Please offer your responses in the comments. 

First Base: Adam LaRoche

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    This could be the one big free-agent signing Boston makes this winter. Will it be big enough to satisfy Red Sox fans?

    Adam LaRoche could return to the Washington Nationals next season, but the guess here is that the team will make a tough decision and decide not to exercise its $10 million mutual option. Though LaRoche has had a fine year for the Nats, Washington can move Michael Morse to first base and sign the center fielder general manager Mike Rizzo has coveted for years.

    LaRoche is batting .261/.334/.481 with 23 home runs and 78 RBI this season, which is consistent with his career norms. That would give the Red Sox excellent production at first base and for a decent price. Could Boston get him with a two-year deal worth $20 million to $24 million?

    If the Red Sox decide to stay in-house, Jarrod Saltalamacchia would be an option at first base. He's only played 40 games at the position, but if Boston knows he'll be there next season, Saltalamacchia has a full offseason and spring training to get acclimated. 

Second Base: Dustin Pedroia

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    If Dustin Pedroia can stand playing for Bobby Valentine again next season and still considers himself a team leader, there's no reason to think he won't be the Red Sox second baseman next year.

    There just aren't many good second baseman available. Ask the Detroit Tigers how easy it is to find one. 

    Pedroia is signed for the next two seasons, with an $11 million club option for 2015. Perhaps he won't want to be part of what could be a slight rebuilding project for the next two to three years, but the Red Sox will hardly be the Chicago Cubs or Houston Astros. With the talent already on-hand and a few holes to fill, Boston could be a contender in the AL East. 

    If Pedroia wants out of Boston, the Red Sox will certainly find a team interested in acquiring a former MVP and three-time All-Star who's under club control for up to three more years. But the Red Sox would find it too difficult to replace him, running through the same carousel they've had at shortstop since 2004.

Third Base: Will Middlebrooks

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    Boston already committed to Will Middlebrooks when it traded Kevin Youkilis to the Chicago White Sox. Is there any reason to think he won't be the Red Sox's starting third baseman next season? 

    Middlebrooks has two more years before he becomes eligible for arbitration, putting him under club control for the next five seasons. Other teams yearn to have a regular position player for that long with a controlled cost. 

    After a promising rookie year in which he's hit .288/.325/.509 with 15 home runs and 54 RBI in 286 plate appearances, he's the third baseman of the future. If there's one guy who looks to be a lock for next year's Red Sox starting lineup, it's Middlebrooks.

Shortstop: Mike Aviles

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    Approximately three weeks ago, I listed Mike Aviles as a player who would not be back with the Red Sox next season. 

    At the time, my thinking was that Boston had Jose Iglesias and Pedro Ciriaco as capable replacements. Plus, Aviles was only going to get more expensive with two arbitration seasons to come. 

    Though the Red Sox could surely find a team interested in trading for a shortstop under club control for two more years who will cost less than $2 million per season, Boston would be crazy to let him go. 

    Aviles has had a decent offensive season, batting .256/.287/.404 with 27 doubles, 13 home runs, 58 RBI and 11 stolen bases. But more importantly, he's given the Red Sox a good year with the glove. According to Fangraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating, Aviles is the fifth-best defensive shortstop in baseball this year. 

    Boston has regularly cycled through shortstops since Orlando Cabrera left after the 2004 season. The Red Sox need some stability at that position. So if Aviles hits well enough to stay in the lineup, there's no reason not to keep him around. 

Left Field: Cody Ross

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    Signing Cody Ross to a one-year, $3 million contract may have been the best move Ben Cherington has made as general manager. (Well, before trading Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford to the Los Angeles Dodgers, that is.)

    In a season where many teams have been yearning for a right-handed hitting outfielder with power, the Red Sox snapped one up for a bargain price before the season. 

    The market for right-handed-hitting outfielders is thin and Cherington easily could have traded Ross to several playoff contenders. Yet despite the huge demand for him, the Red Sox decided to keep Ross. That probably tips off their intentions for next season. 

    Can the Red Sox bring Ross back on another one-year contract? He'll surely prefer at least two years on a new deal. But with a raise over his $3 million salary—perhaps up to $5 million—and perhaps an option for 2014, Boston could have a deal with Ross. 

    The Red Sox won't find a better outfielder on the market without paying much more money for one. Do they really want to get into the Josh Hamilton business? Why not keep a cheaper, yet still productive option around? 

Center Field: Jacoby Ellsbury

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    With Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford gone, the Red Sox will need someone to be a cornerstone player to build a team around. A 28-year-old center fielder one year removed from an MVP-caliber season seems like just the guy for that role. 

    Jacoby Ellsbury has one more arbitration season remaining. Even if he gets a raise over this year's $8.05 million salary, he'll still be cheaper than whatever the Red Sox could get on the free agent market. Boston could pursue a center fielder like Michael Bourn or B.J. Upton, but why do so with Ellsbury already on hand? 

    Ellsbury hasn't had a great season, batting .269/.316/.365 with one home run, 15 RBI and nine stolen bases, but he's been limited to 48 games as of Aug. 28 due to a significant shoulder injury. 

    At the very least, the Red Sox should bring him back next season and re-evaluate their situation with him at midseason. Ellsbury could be a popular trade target. If the feeling is that he might prefer to get out of Boston and test free agency, the Red Sox could get something in return for him at the trade deadline.

Right Field: Torii Hunter

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    Here's the move that could draw groans from Red Sox fans. 

    Torii Hunter will be 38 years old next season. Perhaps there should be some concern about whether this year indicates his skills are diminishing.

    In 441 plate appearances, Hunter is batting .291/.345/.425 with 12 home runs and 61 RBI. But that looks to be right in line with his production during the past five seasons. With 200 more plate appearances, his numbers would be where they typically are. 

    Hunter probably wouldn't require more than a two-year contract, perhaps a one-year deal with an option.

    He could still provide a 20-homer, 90-RBI bat, a right-handed stick that could fit nicely in the middle of the Red Sox lineup. Hunter would also contribute defensively. According to Fangraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating, Hunter still plays an excellent right field. 

    There will be other options available in free agency. The Red Sox could find a flashier, younger player. But he'll probably be a lot more expensive than Hunter and might not even provide the same production.

Catcher: Jarrod Saltalamacchia

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    Three weeks ago, I included Jarrod Saltalamacchia on a list of players who would not be back with the Red Sox next season. 

    But as with Mike Aviles, I now think I was mistaken. Saltalamacchia has one more arbitration season, and even if he gets a raise over his current $2.5 million salary, that's a good price for a starting major league catcher. 

    Though the Red Sox surely prefer that Saltalamacchia would hit better than the .230/.286/.484 triple-slash average he's compiled this season, 20 home runs and 50 RBI is some nice pop to have in the lineup. 

    Ryan Lavarnway is Boston's catcher of the future but didn't hit for much power with Triple-A Pawtucket this season and hasn't been terribly impressive since being called up to the majors on Aug. 2. He could use at least one more year of seasoning in Triple-A or as a backup in the majors.

    Saltalamacchia could be a one-year stopgap at the very least. And as mentioned in a previous slide, he also gives the Red Sox some versatility at first base or designated hitter if Boston decides it wants to give Lavarnway more time behind the plate. 

Designated Hitter: David Ortiz

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    If David Ortiz wants to get away from the drama surrounding the Red Sox, which he told MLB.com's Ian Browne he was tired of dealing with, he'll have the opportunity to do so after the season.

    Perhaps he needs to flee the Boston media grind that has worn down so many Red Sox players.

    Additionally, Ortiz hasn't been too happy with the Red Sox front office since it offered him a one-year deal through arbitration for this season rather than the two-year contract he wanted. He called the process "humiliating" and "embarrassing" in an interview with USA Today's Jorge Ortiz.

    Now that Adrian Gonzalez is gone, however, the Red Sox need Ortiz's left-handed power bat in the middle of their lineup. Unless he feels he can get a two-year contract through free agency, will Ortiz really find a better situation elsewhere?

    The Red Sox will need veterans to build around as they reset their roster. Despite missing 35 games with an Achilles tendon injury (with more to come after Ortiz had to go back on the disabled list), Ortiz has been extremely productive this season. 

    In 383 plate appearances, Ortiz batted .318/.415/.611 with 23 home runs and 60 RBI. That kind of production won't be easy to replace at DH. If the Red Sox look to free agency, they'll find it virtually impossible to replace Ortiz.

    Boston needs Big Papi in its lineup next season.

Starting Rotation

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    Jon Lester

    With an 8-10 record and 4.98 ERA after 28 starts, Lester is having the worst season of his seven-year major league career. But he appears to be turning himself around in recent starts.

    In his past three appearances, Lester has allowed five runs and 14 hits over 20 innings. He's struck out 22 batters during that span while walking eight. Lester told the Boston Herald's Michael Silverman that the difference has been in his pitch selection and a more aggressive approach.

    Continuing that process through September will be a major encouragement, assuring the Red Sox that they'll have an ace at the top of their rotation next season.

     

    Clay Buchholz

    Buchholz has been Boston's most consistent starter, compiling an 11-4 record and 4.47 ERA in 22 starts. 

    That ERA would seem to indicate that Buchholz still has some improvements to make. But that number is inflated due to his first-half struggles.

    During the second half, Buchholz has been much more consistent, compiling a 2.91 ERA in eight starts. As Evan Brunell wrote for ESPN.com, the difference for Buchholz has been establishing his changeup. He can throw the pitch for strikes, giving him a five-pitch arsenal.

     

    Felix Doubront

    Perhaps the most pleasant surprise for the Red Sox this year has been the emergence of Doubront, who gave the rotation a strong left-handed starter while Lester struggled through most of the season. 

    In 23 starts, Doubront has a 10-6 record and 4.79 ERA. He hasn't pitched as well recently, giving up four or more runs in four of his past five starts. But a left knee injury put him on the disabled list for most of August. 

    The real problem with Doubront may be fatigue. He's pitched 127.1 innings this season, far more than the 87.2 he logged between the minors and majors last year. Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald reported that the Red Sox may shut him down after 150 innings. 

     

    Franklin Morales

    Though he's struggled in his past two appearances, Morales has generally been impressive in nine starts for the Red Sox this season. (He's appeared in 37 games overall.)

    He's compiled a 3-4 record and 3.77 ERA with 76 strikeouts in 76.1 innings. His rate of 9.0 strikeouts per game is one of the best on the Red Sox pitching staff. 

    Manager Bobby Valentine told WEEI.com's Stephen Hewitt that he likes Morales as a starter and prefers him in that role. Morales wants to start as well. Unless the bullpen is short-handed next year, there seems to be no reason not to keep Morales in the rotation. 

     

    Ervin Santana

    The Red Sox need a fifth starter next season. They could add an innings-eater like Joe Blanton to the back end of their rotation or take a chance on someone like Joe Saunders. But why not sign someone with some potential upside?

    Santana has a $13 million option with the Los Angeles Angels for next season, but the Angels will probably opt for a $1 million buyout instead. 

    Santana has had a miserable 2012 season, posting a 7-11 record and 5.45 ERA. But he's capable of pitching 200 innings and striking out seven batters per game. Leaving the pitcher-friendly Angel Stadium for Fenway Park could be a concern, however. 

Bullpen

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    Andrew Bailey

    The Red Sox traded for Bailey with the intention of making him their closer. A thumb injury has kept him out for most of the season.

    But with Alfredo Aceves' recent three-game suspension calling his future with Boston into question, the Red Sox may as well pitch Bailey in the ninth inning and see what he can do.

    Bailey is under club control for two more years, with two arbitration seasons remaining. Coming off an injury-shortened season, he probably won't be getting much of a raise through arbitration. The Red Sox will cross their fingers and hope Bailey can stay healthy enough to regain his 25-save form. 

     

    Mike Adams

    Given Bailey's injury history, the Red Sox should probably pick up some insurance for a closer. But Boston probably doesn't want to pay actual closer money for someone like Jonathan Broxton, Ryan Madson or Brandon League. Picking up a top setup reliever might be the better move.

    Adams has been one of the best setup men in baseball over the past six years. With him pitching for the Texas Rangers during the past one-and-a-half seasons, he's also proven he can pitch in the American League. That's something the Red Sox will likely consider strongly after watching Mark Melancon's performance after coming over from the Houston Astros. 

    After working as a setup man for so long, Adams might prefer to go someplace where he can be the closer (and make more money). But he should have the opportunity to close out several games for the Red Sox since Bailey can never seem to stay healthy.

     

    Mark Melancon

    Melancon has had a pretty awful first season with Boston, logging a 6.82 ERA in 32 appearances. He was so bad early in the season that the Red Sox had to send him down to Triple-A Pawtucket.

    There should still be some uncertainty as to whether Melancon is capable of pitching in the American League, especially against AL East competition.

    But he's under team control through 2016 and figures to be a low-cost option for the back end of the bullpen. The Red Sox may still hope he can be a setup man for Bailey and replacement closer on the days Bailey needs a rest. 

    Other names that figure to be in Boston's bullpen mix for next season include Daniel Bard, Andrew Miller, Craig Breslow, Pedro Beato and Rubby De La Rosa.

    Bard, in particular, will be one reliever worth watching. After the failed experiment of moving him to the starting rotation, can he once again be the outstanding setup reliever he was in his first three major league seasons?

     

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