Predicting Boston Red Sox's Starting Lineup Halfway Through Spring Training
At the halfway mark of spring training, manager John Farrell is busy evaluating the best plausible options for assembling his 2014 major league starting lineup.
The Red Sox are one team that has the luxury of ensuring a number of bona fide starters carrying over from their championship roster, which boasted not only the second-highest batting average in the American League last year but also a core group of players that propelled them to the 2013 World Series title.
As far as those players are concerned, there are relatively few questions to ask when it comes to Opening Day. Players like designated hitter David Ortiz and second baseman Dustin Pedroia figure to be linchpins in the equation for success.
Yet there are a number of significant question marks that arise when discussing what should be expected out of the Red Sox's lineup at the start of the regular season.
Who will bat leadoff atop the order? Will it be right fielder Shane Victorino or perhaps a dark-horse candidate like Daniel Nava? Is Jackie Bradley Jr. the favorite to earn the starting job in center over the recently acquired Grady Sizemore?
Farrell answered some of the pertinent questions surrounding how he will handle Boston's Opening Day lineup in 2014, which gives us a good indication of what to expect out of this offense this season.
Of course, as with anything sports-related, things can change. Spring training has already given us a glimpse of what may transpire and will unquestionably carry an influence on the final decision Farrell makes moving forward.
Until that moment, however, all we can do is speculate.
In the meantime, let us take a look at a detailed projection of the Red Sox's 2014 lineup at this point of spring training. As stated, some positions are easy to project. Others are not.
Let us take a look.
No. 1: Shane Victorino
No. 1—Leadoff: Shane Victorino
Position: Right Field
One of the bigger looming questions the Boston Red Sox have entering 2014 is right atop the lineup.
The loss of Jacoby Ellsbury via free agency during the offseason hurts this lineup a lot. Not only did Ellsbury provide the exceptional on-base potential and speed desired from a leadoff candidate, but he also gave that critical spark to the lineup.
With Ellsbury gone, the Red Sox find themselves scrambling for an immediate replacement—an element described further by Yahoo! Sports' Howard Ulman.
On the surface, the favorite candidate appears to be right fielder Shane Victorino—tabbed by manager John Farrell as a likely option as described on the previous slide.
What makes Victorino the most plausible selection is the fact that he has practical experience batting at the top of the order—1,010 plate appearances in his career when batting in the No. 1 spot.
Yet Victorino's career splits from the 1-slot are not exactly awe inspiring. Sure, he provides patience at the plate and still has plenty of speed at 33 years old, but the other intangibles are a cause for some concern.
In those 1,010 plate appearances in the leadoff position, Victorino has a career .249 batting average and a .317 on-base percentage.
While past numbers are never a direct indication of future trends, they do provide some insight into the type of success Victorino has had when asked to perform a similar role. Farrell will most likely closely monitor Victorino's performance in this position and potentially make changes as the season moves on.
Outfielders like Daniel Nava and even Jonny Gomes could also be slotted as potential leadoff candidates if Victorino struggles in the position. The problem with this scenario, however, is that Nava struggles against left-handed pitching much like Gomes struggles against righties.
One could make the argument that Farrell could simply start either Nava or Gomes in the leadoff spot depending on the opposing starter, which could solve the issue.
Call it a gut feeling, but this author has always felt that consistency and defined roles—especially at such a crucial position like leadoff—are more beneficial to the overall offensive production from a lineup. A platoon situation could hinder this.
Expect this situation to be a focal point for the Red Sox this season. If Victorino is able to match up with the task, everything should be fine. If not, changes could be made during the season.
Still, Victorino earns the starting job atop the order on Opening Day.
No. 2: Daniel Nava
No. 2: Daniel Nava
Position: Left Field
If left fielder Daniel Nava is unable to secure the leadoff position in Boston's lineup, the most likely slot for him is in the 2-slot right behind Shane Victorino.
At 31 years old, Nava has done plenty to prove his doubters wrong—indicated by his .303 batting average last year while playing his first full season with the Red Sox at the major league level. His respectable .385 on-base percentage from 2013 is also a nice indication of what is to come this season.
As a switch-hitter, Nava also provides a different look for opposing pitchers and gives manager John Farrell a number of options when it comes to selecting his matchups.
There is one drawback to Nava's offensive prowess, however. Nava has not exactly wowed against left-handed pitching.
Conventional wisdom might suggest that Nava be slated deeper in the Red Sox lineup, perhaps in the Nos. 5 or 6 holes. Even Farrell has suggested that Nava could be in the 5-slot over the course of the season per Ricky Doyle of NESN.com.
Farrell also stated via Doyle:
The one thing I like about Daniel’s abilities in that five [or] six hole is, to me, he lengthens out the lineup. He’s going to put up a very tough at-bat in probably a key spot, because you think that guys ahead of him are going to be on base just by their track record. As an RBI type of bat with that type of consistency, those opportunities are going to be there for him. All those things are being factored in as we look at it.
Yet this would mean moving up the heart of Boston's lineup—Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli—up one slot each. The biggest impact of this may be felt by Napoli, who has had much more experience batting from the No. 5 spot in the order, which is where most of his production has emanated from.
For this reason, Nava might be a better fit in the 2-slot.
We've hinted at Nava's struggles against left-handed pitching. He owns a career .223 batting average against lefties, and the Red Sox will certainly see plenty of those over the course of 2014.
In this case, expect Farrell to start Gomes over Nava and potentially shuffle the lineup accordingly if Farrell does not want to put Gomes high in the order.
Yet as far as the Opening Day lineup is concerned, Nava should get tabbed as the No. 2 hitter, and the Red Sox would be better off because of it.
No. 3: Dustin Pedroia
No. 3: Dustin Pedroia
Position: Second Base
Second baseman Dustin Pedroia will bat in front of David Ortiz this season.
The only question will be whether or not it is from the 2-slot or the 3-slot.
For the purposes of continuity, let us assume that Pedroia remains in the No. 3 position in the lineup directly in front of Ortiz.
There really isn't much of an argument against putting Pedroia anywhere else. Pedroia is a scrappy, tough at-bat and provides the needed protection for Ortiz by getting on base in front of him.
The only question about Pedroia is whether or not his power numbers will rise from his 2013 campaign.
A thumb injury sustained on Opening Day 2013 certainly had some implications on Pedroia's overall power numbers last season. He hit only nine home runs over the course of the year—his lowest since his 2007 campaign (eight), which was his first full season at the major league level.
Now fully recovered, should the Red Sox be expecting Pedroia's power to come back to him? It's a likely possibility, and one that will give the Red Sox lineup some added strength and potency.
Look for Pedroia to replicate seasons like his 2011 campaign. He will continue to provide a solid batting average, and those power numbers should also be on the rise.
There is nothing wrong with that scenario at all.
No. 4: David Ortiz
No. 4: David Ortiz
Position: Designated Hitter
At 38 years old, David Ortiz is still the heart and soul of the Red Sox offense. Expect nothing to change in 2014.
Ortiz's prolific power and presence in the batter's box continue to strike fear in opposing pitchers, and his ability to impact nearly everything the Red Sox do offensively will remain a vital factor in how Boston's offense performs this season.
Like many great hitters, Ortiz seems to be always either on deck, in the hole or in the box. Opposing pitching staffs will adjust their approaches to other hitters surrounding Ortiz based on how soon they have to face him.
In short, Ortiz makes every other Red Sox hitter in the lineup that much better.
Like Dustin Pedroia in front of him, there are no doubts to what Ortiz's role in the lineup will be.
If there is a predominant question, it has to be specifically when Ortiz begins to show signs of his age. At 38 years old, it would be reasonable to assume that Ortiz only has a few seasons—at most—left in his aging body.
The combination of his age and a possible contract extension have already been a heated topic this spring training—elements that are further described by Ian Browne of MLB.com.
Even Ortiz has acknowledged "father time" and has hinted that when he slows down, it will be time to call it quits per Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com.
Fortunately, there have been almost zero indications of anything like this happening.
No. 5: Mike Napoli
No. 5: Mike Napoli
Position: First Base
There was a time—albeit briefly—earlier this offseason where the departure of Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli was a legitimate possibility.
After his three-year turned one-year deal with the Red Sox expired, Napoli became one of the biggest offseason targets for general manager Ben Cherington and Boston's front office.
The deal was made, Napoli stayed and the Red Sox lineup and clubhouse shall benefit.
Napoli will once again provide the necessary protection behind David Ortiz in Boston's lineup. Teams with offensive stars like Ortiz need players like Napoli to make opposing pitchers think twice about intentional walks.
Remember all those intentional passes to San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds some years back? The Giants lacked anybody to protect him in the lineup. Fortunately, the Red Sox do not suffer from the same need.
Napoli drove in 92 runs last year and provided 53 of those from the No. 5 hole.
Should we expect more of the same from Napoli in 2014?
Ben Buchanan of SB Nation suggests that Napoli could be due for some regression this season, citing some of his career splits and 2012 issues as a possible indication.
There is also concern about the degenerative hip condition that hindered his initial contract signing with the Red Sox.
Yet Napoli feels as healthy as ever and stated so via Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com:
Last year, I couldn't run, I couldn't do a lot of impact stuff. I got a lot of running in [this winter], I feel good. It feels a lot different. I come in, I don't have to worry about the hip and stuff. It's been a good offseason.
We shall see if good health and production go hand-in-hand this year. If they do, Napoli's numbers should be a good reflection on the abilities Boston so needs in this lineup.
No. 6: Xander Bogaerts
No. 6: Xander Bogaerts
The (likely) dismissal of former Red Sox shortstop Stephen Drew is probably the most beneficial scenario that the young and talented Xander Bogaerts could have asked for.
For starters, it all but guarantees a starting job for Bogaerts in 2014 without the concern of being placed into a platoon situation at third base—something that transpired late in 2013.
He is the real deal and is perhaps the most major league ready prospect that the Red Sox have on their roster. If his 2013 playoff campaign was any indication, Boston fans will have plenty to look forward to this season from this budding star.
Of course, like almost any rookie, there will be growing pains and adjustments during Bogaerts' maturation period. He will struggle at times and perhaps even draw some ire. Still, there is no reason to assume that he will not reach his high ceiling very quickly.
The only question, however, is this—where is Bogaerts best suited to bat in Boston's lineup?
Manager John Farrell does not want to put too much pressure on the young phenom by batting him high up in the order, at least not yet. He also does not need to rely upon Bogaerts to provide added muscle in the middle of the lineup. Farrell already has players like Pedroia, Ortiz and Napoli to do that.
Instead, Farrell will stretch the lineup out and give it depth by placing Bogarts in the 6-slot, directly behind the heart of Boston's order.
This will give Bogaerts plenty of chances with runners on base and allow him to showcase his skills when it comes to contributing to the Red Sox's offense.
Batting sixth is already something Farrell has hinted at via Ricky Dolye of NESN.com.
Depending on how Bogaerts' season starts, Farrell could consider switching Bogaerts around in the lineup and finding out where his services would be most beneficial to the offense. Bogaerts is that type of impact player in the making.
Yet for Opening Day, the No. 6 spot is nothing to be ashamed of.
No. 7: A.J. Pierzynski
No. 7: A.J. Pierzynski
Forget for a moment all you have heard about the reputation that veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski brings with him.
Thus far into spring training, this reputation has not followed him, as further described by Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com.
Like many aging players, however, especially behind the plate, the primary question that surrounds the 37-year-old Pierzynski is how his body will handle another year, especially at such a rigorous position.
Up to this point, the numbers have indicated that Pierzysnki is not slowing down. He is a career .283 hitter and batted. 272 last season. His splits at Fenway Park are also good, which should be of benefit to the Red Sox lineup.
Yet there is always that first season an aging player endures that indicates he is slowing down. Pierzynski and the Red Sox hope that 2014 is not that season.
Still, expect Pierzynski to get plenty of rest this season. While penultimate backup David Ross is an offensive downgrade from Pierzynski, he is just as capable of handling the defensive aspects behind the plate as well as working closely with the pitching staff to generate a formidable rotation and bullpen.
Signed to a one-year deal, Pierzynski is likely nothing more than a stop-gap option for the Red Sox until prospect catchers like Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart are ready to go.
But this one-year deal could provide some incentive for Pierzynski to keep playing at a high level, unless he views retirement as a plausible option in the near future.
Until then, however, Pierzynski will continue to provide added offensive prowess to Boston's lineup.
No. 8: Will Middlebrooks
No. 8: Will Middlebrooks
Position: Third Base
Similar to Xander Bogaerts at shortstop, third baseman Will Middlebrooks is also a primary beneficiary of the departure of Stephen Drew.
The only difference, however, is that Middlebrooks is perhaps on the hot seat in 2014.
We can determine this by comparing Middlebrooks' 2012 and 2013 seasons side-by-side. In 2012—Middlebrooks' rookie season—he batted .288 with an .835 OPS. Yet in 2013, Middlebrooks stumbled and hit only .227 with a .696 OPS.
His WAR (wins above replacement) was 1.2 and -0.1 respectively.
Middlebrooks' drop-off year, perhaps hindered by a wrist injury last season, forced him back to AAA for a period of time and eventually cost him playing time in favor of the developing Bogaerts late in the season.
With Drew gone, however, Middlebrooks should be able to gain the opportunity to showcase his skill set over an entire season until proven otherwise.
It is safe to assume Middlebrooks will be playing under scrutiny this season. The time is now for Middlebrooks to justify his spot on the Red Sox's 25-man roster.
Middlebrooks feels as if he can answer the task, thanks in large measure to a different offseason workout regimen that he described this spring via Ricky Doyle of NESN.com:
I’ve said it a million times, last year sucked for me. It’s not fun and I don’t want to do it again. Looking at the team, of course, we won the World Series. That’s as good as it gets. But individually, I felt like I could have contributed more, and that’s my goal this year. If you don’t feel well or you’re playing at 75 percent every day, you’re not going to help your team out. You can try to be a tough guy and grind out everything, but at a certain point you have to realize it’s not going to help your team out as much as you’re trying to.
Both Middlebrooks and the Red Sox hope the dividends pay out this season. With his disastrous 2013 campaign now in the past, Middlebrooks should be able to focus more on what he can do to improve in 2014.
But with the Red Sox's brass watching closely, he will have to perform in order to retain the job.
Still, at the start of the 2014 season, it is hard to see Middlebrooks out of the lineup, so he gets tabbed as the No. 8 hitter on Opening Day.
No. 9: Jackie Bradley Jr.
No. 9: Jackie Bradley Jr.
Position: Center Field
I struggled with this selection a little bit.
Should we go with a once-heralded top talent whose body became a hindrance to what once was a promising career? Or should we tab a young rookie prospect who may not yet have what it takes to handle the pressure of the major leagues?
In the end, I felt that the Red Sox would be better off by evaluating their future options instead of relying heavily on an injury-prone player who once was considered among baseball's best.
Rookie prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. should get the nod over veteran offseason acquisition Grady Sizemore.
When healthy, Sizemore should be the easy choice. The only problem, though, is the previous statement includes the phrase when healthy.
Sizemore has not played in the majors since 2011 and has endured a slew of injuries and surgeries since 2009.
If he was healthy, Sizemore could have been the most likeable option to replace Jacoby Ellsbury in center and perhaps even atop the order. Yet the injury concerns alone force me to think the Red Sox are leaning more in Bradley's direction.
Yes, the Red Sox should be patient with Sizemore—an argument further backed up by Boston.com's Chad Finn. But they also need to be patient with Bradley and realize that there is a high ceiling with the young prospect without the established injury risks associated with Sizemore.
Bradley's brief introduction to the majors last year did not inspire very much. In 95 at-bats in 2013, Bradley hit an underwhelming .189 and looked almost completely overmatched during his brief stint. Being able to push that experience behind him and move on will be paramount to Bradley's success.
Spring training has given us some indication of what may eventually transpire on Opening Day.
But Ron Borges of The Boston Herald suggests that Sizemore's presence could be nothing more than competition for Bradley at this point, even if Sizemore earns the starting job in 2014.
After taking all this into consideration, I still have to think Bradley earns the role given the Red Sox's need to get younger and healthier. If it does not happen on Opening Day, that does not necessarily mean it will not happen at all for Bradley.
If Bradley does make the starting lineup, it is hard to fathom manager John Farrell placing him anywhere but the back end of Boston's lineup—ideally in the No. 9 hole.
This gives Bradley plenty of experience without the pressure of being asked to contribute to a high degree. It also gives the Red Sox brass further criteria to evaluate in determining how ready Bradley is for a major league role.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise stated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the Boston Red Sox. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.