With a nine-game road trip to three National League ballparks on the horizon, the Red Sox will have to address an issue that hopefully will present itself again in October. With no designated hitter of course, Terry Francona will have to decide how to balance the at-bats between Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz.
Boston has faced a similar predicament with how to find at-bats for Big Papi in past seasons, but with true Gold Glove first baseman Gonzalez making a case for MVP early in the season, the decision this year will be especially difficult.
One idea that has surfaced has been playing Gonzalez in right field—a position that would only cost playing time to the duo of J.D. Drew and Mike Cameron, neither of whom have found their stride this year.
According to Gordon Edes of ESPN, Francona has already approached Gonzo, who said that he would be willing to make the switch if it meant getting Ortiz his licks. While seemingly asinine on the surface, there appears to be some method to Francona's madness.
Gonzalez has experience playing the outfield in winter ball in years past. And as Francona pointed out, sitting the hot-hotting Ortiz for seven out of nine games would be ill-advised for both Papi and the team.
Kevin Youkilis has started games in the outfield to make room for Ortiz, but of course neither Gonzalez or Ortiz would be fit to start at third base.
For one, the risk of injury to Gonzalez skyrockets. Too many times have baseball viewers seen nasty collisions between a center and right fielder, and with an outfielder who has not played the position at all (save one game) in the majors, that risk rises exponentially. And when the players at risk are Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury, who is enjoying a solid year atop the order after bouncing back from injury, the decision becomes that much harder.
For Ortiz, there's a question of injury as well. The slugger's right knee has wavered on less than 100 percent in years past, and playing the field would only add to the wear and tear for a 34-year-old whose 2011 numbers are proving he is still in his prime.
On another level, the team's defense takes a massive hit. Not only will the slow-footed and under-experienced Gonzalez be a liability in the outfield, but the level of competency at first base will be in doubt, as well.
While Ortiz has performed admirably at first base in years past during interleague play and in the World Series, he has developed into a pure designated hitter. And with Gonzalez in the outfield, the Sox would lose the capabilities of the two-time Gold Glover at first. All of a sudden, the right side of the field looks appealing to the Pirates, Phillies and Astros at the plate.
If Gonzalez stays at first base for the three series, the streaking Ortiz would lose valuable at-bats and be put out of rhythm with a two-week break from his normal routine. The entire lineup would take a hit, as well. It isn't easy to replace a .320 average with 17 HR and 36 RBI in the five-hole.
So in a nutshell, therein lies Francona's dilemma. Reports say that Gonzalez is willing to change gloves and give it his best in right field for a few games. Odds are that the shakeup will not lead to season-ending injuries, but in games against the Pirates and Astros, is it really worth the risk?
While the issue may be keeping Tito up at night now, the Sox can hope he'll have reason to be having sleepless nights again a couple months down the road.