Final Predictions for Winner of Boston Red Sox's Key Spring Position Battles

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Final Predictions for Winner of Boston Red Sox's Key Spring Position Battles
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
With Opening Day approaching, the Red Sox have relatively few, albeit substantial, questions to ask.

Spring training is coming to a close and position battles are to be won or lost.

With the 2014 MLB season nearly upon us, the Boston Red Sox find themselves in an enviable position of defending their third World Series title in the last 10 years.

A number of familiar faces will carry over from last season into this year. Expected to start are guys like Dustin Pedroia, Mike Napoli and Xander Bogaerts.

Yet after a trying offseason, there also remain a number of position battles and questions remaining to be answered.

In this article, we shall take a closer look at these remaining issues and offer up predictions based on current and relevant information.

Who will start for the Red Sox in center field in 2014? Will it be oft-injured offseason pickup Grady Sizemore, or will it be a prematurely debuted Jackie Bradley Jr.?

Which player will manager John Farrell insert into Boston's leadoff spot in the lineup? Could it be the veteran Shane Victorino, or perhaps a combination of Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes?

These questions and more will be at the heart of this evaluation. After all, the Red Sox are defending a World Series title within one of the toughest divisions in baseball—the American League East.

To do this, they will have to put the best product out on the field, so let's examine how this will happen. 

 

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Lester will once again anchor Boston's rotation in 2014.

The Starting Rotation

Out of all the question marks surrounding the Red Sox's plans entering 2014, the starting rotation is probably the least up for debate.

Yet as far as pitching goes, it is perhaps the most important.

We should all know at this point that pitching wins championships. Look no further than last year as a prime example.

We should also bank upon Boston's No. 1 ace Jon Lester to start off coach John Farrell's five-man rotation this season. I doubt there would be any questions surrounding that.

It's the remaining pitchers behind Lester that are up for debate, although Farrell's intentions have been made available.

The Red Sox rotation plans, per Ricky Doyle of NESN.com, start with Lester, followed by John Lackey, Felix Doubront, Jake Peavy and Clay Buchholz.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the planned rotation is the slating of Buchholz as Boston's No. 5 starter. But further evaluation gives some reason behind Farrell's rationale.

When healthy, Buchholz has ace-like stuff, but Buchholz struggles to stay on the field. Over his seven-year career, Buchholz has appeared in 20 or more games only twice. Needless to say, injuries are always a concern with the talented righty.

Placing Buchholz at the back end of the rotation allows the Red Sox some flexibility if, and when, Buchholz succumbs to another injury in 2014. Buchholz's rotational replacements—most likely Brandon Workman or offseason pickup Chris Capuano—should take over the slot in the event of an injury.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press
Injury concerns have likely influenced the placement of Clay Buchholz at the back of the rotation.

At the back end of the rotation these pitchers would have much less pressure put upon them. Additionally, if Buchholz remains healthy, Farrell would have the option of skipping a Buchholz start on off days in order to give him added rest—an option that is much more feasible at the back end of the rotation.

Prediction: We are going to go with Farrell's preseason rotation here. It should be Lester, Lackey, Doubront, Peavy and Buchholz, as stated.

 

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Daniel Nava will likely see a little more playing time in left field compared to his competition.

Left Field

Perhaps this isn't as much of a position battle as it is a determination of which player gets more playing time.

In left field, the Red Sox will once again look to platoon Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes, much like they did in 2013.

Nava has traditionally hit better against right-handed pitching, owning a career .292 batting average against righties.

On the other side, Gomes is much more effective against lefties, having posted a career .277 batting average facing left-handed pitching.

Mike Carp also figures to get some playing time as the Red Sox's No. 5 outfielder.

Farrell summarized how well this platoon worked last year and stated his expectation about what may carry over in 2014, via Jason Mastrodonato of MLB.com last November:

I know you can make the argument that [Gomes] performed better against righties this year than in years past, but when you look at the combination of what he and Nava did in left field, I want to say it was about 110 RBIs, it was close to 30 home runs, it was over 50 doubles.  I think that combination was extremely productive.  Depending on what the entire roster looks like when we get to Spring Training, that will have a lot to do with the workload of every guy on this team.  The one thing that we are sure of is that Gomes did exactly what we hoped for him to do when he came here.

On paper, it would be easy to assume that Nava should see the majority of time in left given the fact that most pitchers are right-handed. But Nava's production fell off a bit towards the end of last year, which gave Gomes more playing time down the stretch.

Steven Senne/Associated Press
Jonny Gomes will offset Nava in the left field platoon situation.

Dan Shaughnessy and Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe discussed the possibility of this happening again.

It could be a situation where Farrell continues with what works best in righty-lefty matchups this season while giving consideration to which player is riding a hot streak.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Nava's success against right-handed pitching should give him the edge in at-bats in 2014.

But for the sake of the position battle at hand, we shall go with what worked for the majority of last season.

Prediction: Nava is the favorite to get the majority of starts in left field followed by Gomes and Carp, respectively.

 

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
Shane Victorino is the likely favorite to take over the Red Sox's leadoff duties.

Batting Leadoff

Losing Jacoby Ellsbury to the New York Yankees via free agency hurts this lineup in a number of ways.

No matter how one slices it, it is going to be hard to replicate Ellsbury's production at the top of the order. His on-base potential combined with his blazing speed was a catalyst to Boston's dynamic offense last season, ranked second in the majors with 0.64 first-inning runs per game.

So who will the Red Sox tab to fill Ellsbury's stead in 2014?

An initial prediction should narrow down Boston's choices to Victorino and Nava. The Gomes-Nava platoon obviously has some influence here, but it is unlikely Farrell tabs Gomes as a leadoff guy considering he has only 14 career leadoff plate appearances over his career.

Bradley is not far along enough in his development to be asked to assume the role, if he even earns the starting center field job.  

More on Bradley later.

If Sizemore winds up making the 25-man roster he would be a plausible option, but I figure Farrell would guard him closely and not want to put the pressure of batting leadoff upon him.

So it is down to Nava and Victorino at this point—something pointed out by Farrell at the winter meetings earlier this offseason (h/t Doyle of NESN.com):

A couple of guys quickly come to mind.  Obviously, it’s [Victorino] and it’s Nava.  Both guys hit in the leadoff spot sparingly this past year.  We’re not going to replace 50-something stolen bases by Jacoby, so I think the biggest thing is who’s our best on-base percentage guy, to keep that individual in front of [Dustin Pedroia], David [Ortiz] and [Mike Napoli].  Those are the two guys that quickly come to mind right now.

Starting with Nava first, let us evaluate his splits. He owns a career .252 batting average in the leadoff slot with a .343 on-base percentage—decent numbers, but not necessarily awe-inspiring.

Nava is also 3-for-31 in 35 game-opening plate appearances, per Doyle.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Victorino's career leadoff numbers have not been historically good.

These numbers, combined with the fact that Victorino has far more experience leading off, lend credence to placing Victorino in that spot—a decision Doyle also argues against.

While Victorino does have substantially more at-bats in the leadoff position—1,010 plate appearances to be exact—his career .249 batting average and .317 on-base percentage are not exactly promising.

Even with these numbers, the position battle has to be leaning more toward Victorino given his experience and recent statistics in a Red Sox uniform. Andrew Martin of Yahoo! Sports points this out by writing:

[Victorino] also has the speed desired at the top of the order, with his 21 stolen bases in 2013 being the most of any player returning from last season.  If he does win the role, he will bring experience with him, though not a ton of success, as he has hit .249 with a .317 OBP in 216 games while hitting leadoff in the past.  As things stand, the versatile veteran is probably the best bet to lead off for the Red Sox but until the regular season arrives, nothing is set in stone.

It certainly is not the most desirable situation for Farrell and the Red Sox to be in, but Doyle and Martin's predictions are probably the best possibility for Boston's lineup.

Prediction: Victorino earns the nod as the Red Sox's leadoff hitter.

 

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Is Jackie Bradley Jr. running out of chances to make the 25-man roster in 2014?

Starting Center Fielder

This is perhaps the most closely watched position battle the Red Sox have had this spring training.

In an ideal world, Ellsbury would have been signed for one more season, which would have given Bradley another year to continue his maturation and development.

But Ellsbury is gone and the pressure is now on one of Boston's top prospects to take over the role in Ellsbury's wake.

The only question is whether he can handle the job yet.

Bradley's 2013 MLB debut was anything but spectacular. Hitting a mere .189 in 95 at-bats revealed the young talent is not quite ready for life at the major league level. Combine that with his .200 batting average thus far into spring training, and one has to wonder if those struggles will continue into the 2014 season.

All of that is provided Bradley even makes the team.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press/Associated Press
Injuries are always a concern with a player like Grady Sizemore.

During the offseason, the Red Sox added veteran outfielder Sizemore.  Once a perennial All-Star, the 31-year-old Sizemore has suffered a slew of setbacks and injuries that have thwarted what was once a promising and stellar career.

Oh, and Sizemore has not played at the major league level since 2011.

In comparison to Bradley, however, Sizemore has put together an impressive spring—batting .360 in 25 spring training at-bats.

On paper, the determination of which player receives the starting center field job is easy. Upon further evaluation, things get a little more difficult.

For starters, we should assume the Red Sox will carry over only five outfielders in 2014 on their 25-man roster. With Carp, Gomes, Nava and Victorino taking up the remaining slots, it is almost impossible to assume that Boston keeps both Bradley and Sizemore on their major league roster.

The dilemma is this: Sizemore is putting up far better numbers and would be a cheap and viable replacement, similar in mold to Ellsbury. The only problem is that Sizemore carries a huge injury risk.

Bradley would ideally be the best option, coming up from the Red Sox's farm system and being a young talent without an injury reputation, but he is showing significant problems adjusting to the pitching at the major league level.

If one wanted to make the argument in favor of Bradley winning the starting job, it could be the one offered up by Peter Kerasotis of The New York Times, which states that in spite of his troubles, Bradley is getting plenty of playing time.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press
Bradley is receiving plenty of playing time in spite of his spring troubles.

This indicates that the Red Sox are far from convinced that Bradley needs another season in the minors, even if that is the eventual route the team takes.

Yet Farrell has hinted that he could see a scenario where Bradley starts off the season at Boston's AAA affiliate, while Sizemore gets the nod on Opening Day, per Mike Petraglia of WEEI.com.

"Yeah, I could envision that." Farrell said.  "But we’d also want to maybe get some exposure with somebody else out there, too, just to take the look while we have the opportunity in spring training."

Steven Senne/Associated Press
Sizemore's impressive spring numbers have put added pressure on Bradley to perform up to par.

The numbers don't lie, and the longer Bradley's struggles at the plate continue, the more likely Sizemore earns the job, even with injury concerns.

Prediction: Not wanting to carry six outfielders on the roster, the Red Sox place Bradley in the minors at the start of the 2014 season and give the starting job to Sizemore.

 

Which position battle is the most critical to the Red Sox's 2014 prospectus?

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Predictions, being what they are, can never be viewed as a clear-cut indication of what is going to happen. One has to consider all the various factors and intangibles associated with the happenings in a major league season.

Injuries can play a factor; slumps can have effects as well. There are plenty of other obstacles and unforeseen circumstances that have a role.

The Red Sox are no different when it comes to determining the best-possible situation for their remaining position battles and questions as Opening Day approaches.

They also want to ensure enough flexibility to account for some of the problems that may arise over the course of the season.

While all of this is yet to be determined, the final roster spots on the Red Sox's roster are taking shape.  

All we have to do is wait until Opening Day to determine what pans out.

 

All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.

 

Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the Boston Red Sox.  Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.

 

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