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March 28. 2012 10:39PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Sox' lineup needs no tinkering


Dustin Pedroia hits a solo home run off Phillies starter Joe Blanton on Monday in Clearwater, Fla. Pedroia is a key cog in baseball's top lineup in 2011. (REUTERS)

With the demotion of Jose Iglesias having settled the situation at shortstop, the nine names Bobby Valentine will write on the lineup card he presents to the Tigers a week from today have basically been determined.

He could have a decision to make in right field, but otherwise his only choice is the order in which he'll write those names. And when he does, the thinking-man's manager would do well to remember one trite-but-tried piece of advice:

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Valentine came to Boston with a few things to fix. A culture. An attitude. The approach. The accountability. The lineup wasn't among them — yet with the exhibition season dwindling quickly, he continues to experiment and explain that he's still trying to find the best fit for all of his puzzle pieces.

Tuesday was the latest example, when he sent out his probable starting nine to face the Rays, and in doing so slotted Mike Aviles into the leadoff spot. Jacoby Ellsbury hit second, followed by Dustin Pedroia, and the rest fell into place as one would expect.

Afterward, he said he liked the idea of Aviles striking fear into opponents immediately. He also mentioned that he likes the idea of Ellsbury getting a chance to hit with someone on base, and that in general he likes a lefty swinger — like Ellsbury is — batting second because he'll have a hole on the right-side of the infield if there's a runner on first.

All are valid reasons. But none is reason enough to disrupt the top of the order that was far and away the best in the American League last season. With Ellsbury leading off, and Pedroia right behind him most nights, the Sox' 1 and 2 hitters batted .303 in 2011. The next best was .280. And not only did they have the AL's best on-base plus slugging (.866, to Kansas City's .793), they were also the best at each of the individual components — with a .369 OBP and a .497 slugging.

They were the sparkplugs for an attack that led all of baseball in scoring. And there's really no good reason — least of all is Aviles's .318 career OBP — that they shouldn't be given the chance to be that again. Doing anything different is nothing more than overthinking it, and, in essence, decreasing the chances that three of baseball's best hitters will be in the box with the game on the line.

More logical is a lineup that looks like this:

1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
After he led the major leagues in total bases (with 364), the natural temptation is to drop him toward the middle of the order, where he'd get more opportunity to drive in runs. However, this is a player who brings a .301 career average to the cusp of his prime after leading off in 403 of his first 478 career starts. He's comfortable there. He's productive there. He should stay there.

2. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
He's the prototypical No. 2 hitter, complete with sensational bat control — only one of every 20 strikes called on him last season was via a swing and miss — and enough offensive versatility to do anything the game demands. Plus, he likes the spot, boasting an average (.311) and OPS (.853) better out of that spot than any place in the lineup other than the clean-up hole. If it's best for him and best for the team, there's no need to change.

3. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
His splits suggest there's not much difference whether he hits third or fourth, and he'll be fine hitting anywhere — but that's the point. He's the best hitter on the team. Longtime baseball convention says the best hitter on the team bats third, and Gonzalez deserves that slot.

4. Kevin Youkilis, 3B
Against opponents without the threat of a lock-down lefthanded reliever it may make sense to hit David Ortiz behind Gonzalez, but in order to keep alternating left- and right-handed hitters, Youkilis is the everyday choice at the start. He's coming off a down year, but he can still wear down a pitcher, and at the very least, doing so here can help make the rest of the order all the more dangerous.

5. David Ortiz, DH
Expecting him to post a .309 average may be ambitious, but the Sox would be thrilled if he gave them what is his average season over the past three years: .272, with 30 homers, 99 RBI, and an .881 OPS. If he can come anywhere near duplicating his 40 doubles of 2011, those RBI numbers should be within reach, given the caliber of hitter he'd be following as the fifth batter.

6. Cody Ross, LF
Until Carl Crawford returns from injury, Ross should be the Sox' left fielder after the spring training he's had. If he can carry over the stroke that's helped him to a .342 average, a 1.116 OPS, four homers and 11 RBI (both team highs), he could potentially give Ortiz a level of protection he never had last season. Especially against lefties, Ross could potentially become a significant weapon.

7. Mike Aviles, SS
If he hits ninth, it'll give Valentine the chance to use Aviles and Ellsbury consecutively, as he did Tuesday. However, Aviles's line-drive gap power should give him a better chance to knock home runs at this slot in the order, and if there are men aboard the Sox would rather have him at the plate than the alternatives — at least until Crawford returns.

8. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
The average AL catcher hit .238 with a .696 OPS in 2011. If Saltalamacchia can give the Sox that and 10-12 homers, they'd probably be happy with him as the eight hitter.

9. Ryan Sweeney, RF
If Justin Verlander were left-handed, Darnell McDonald would be starting — but Sweeney is the more logical choice for opening day, and actually fits nicely as the No. 9 hitter. He gets on-base better than Aviles, and he sees an effective 4.34 pitcher per plate appearance, both of which are assets of a “second leadoff” hitter. McDonald works here, too, given his ability to make lefties pay for coming after him, and his speed.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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