Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Red Sox need to get most out of lineup
As a reminder of just how awry the best-laid plans of Bobby Valentine were rendered by injuries and other instances, consider that he penned 143 different batting orders in his 162 ill-fated games as manager of the Red Sox - the most frequent of which had Jarrod Saltalamacchia hitting cleanup, featured three players who opened the year in the minors, and was used just four times.
The only other order Valentine employed more than twice included short-timer Marlon Byrd, so attempting to anticipate how Boston's lineup could or should look is tough, given that most of New England is still covered in snow and given all that figures to happen between now and April. Let alone, September.
But this edition of the Sox is built such that they'll need to get the most out of everybody if they're going to approach the offensive levels that have become the expectation around here and would be crucial in the club's quest to contend again. That means John Farrell's lineups figure to take on more importance than those of his predecessors, as this attack has equal chance of being excellent as it does mediocre, depending in part on how well the manager maximizes his talent.
Here's one take on how he might do that, against both right- and left-handed pitchers.
Batting first - Jacoby Ellsbury:
The club hit Ellsbury second or third 22 times last season - and he hit .364 in a dozen games out of the two-hole - but his speed, his decent on-base percentage and his improving ability to work a count make him the best fit at the top. Plus, with what's expected of their healthy and contract-motivated center fielder, the Sox will want him at the plate as often as possible.
Second - vs. RHP, Stephen Drew; vs. LHP, Shane Victorino:
This slot is one opportunity for Farrell to take advantage of his players' strengths. Drew's career on-base plus slugging is 85 points higher against righties (.784-.699), while against lefties Victorino has hit .301 with an .881 OPS lifetime. Both players handle the bat and run well enough to do the things expected of a No. 2 hitter.
Third - Dustin Pedroia:
Traditionally, this is where a team wants its best hitter - and that's what Pedroia is. Farrell said this week that he'd consider slotting Jonny Gomes here against lefties, but there's a reason that 50 of Gomes' 53 career starts hitting third came for the 61-101 Rays of 2006. It's because he's not good enough to hit third on a good team.
Fourth - David Ortiz:
When Ortiz was injured last July, even putting him on the disabled list was declared a precautionary measure - so that the designated hitter still isn't 100 percent now seven months later is concerning. Assuming he's healthy, however, last season's numbers say his bat remains worthy of belonging at the heart of the order.
Fifth - vs. RHP, Will Middlebrooks; vs. LHP, Mike Napoli:
Although he hit just .179 against southpaws in 2012, Napoli's .911 career OPS against lefties is reason to slot him behind Ortiz when those pitchers are on the bump. There's not much difference between the two against righties, though Napoli's production tends to be all-or-nothing. With a doubles machine like Pedroia hitting two spots ahead, sometimes a single will be good enough.
Sixth - vs. RHP, Napoli; vs. LHP, Middlebrooks:
Again, they're pretty much interchangeable.
Seventh - vs. RHP, Saltalamacchia; vs. LHP, Gomes:
Saltalamacchia has a rather serviceable .774 career OPS and hit all but one of his 25 homers last season against righties, while Gomes has a lifetime .382 OBP and .894 OPS against lefties. Either way, there's going to be a lot of strikeouts - but that level of production in the seven-hole would lengthen the lineup nicely.
Eighth - vs. RHP, Victorino; vs. LHP, David Ross:
Ross' splits are similar, but Saltalamacchia's struggles against lefties make logical a platoon with Ross catching against southpaws. Hitting a $13 million man like Victorino eighth might seem low, but here the switch-hitter has a chance to set the table for the top of the order, and hitting him behind Saltalamacchia might also dissuade foes from automatically going to a lefty reliever late in games because Victorino handles lefties so well.
Ninth - vs. RHP, Daniel Nava; vs. LHP, Drew:
If the Sox are presented with the chance to add a left-handed hitting outfielder this spring, they should take it; Nava's a nice player, but neither he nor Gomes is an ideal first option against righties. Drew hit just .198 against southpaws last season, and has a .299 OBP for his career. Given the damage others on this team can do against lefties, there's no reason to hit him any higher.
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Part of the club's culture change will include Concord's Bob Tewksbury, who has worked for the Sox as a sports psychology coach since 2005, and who Farrell said this week will be used in a greater capacity this season than he has been in other years.
"When we have a resource such as Tewks, to not use it, we're not giving the players everything that they can take advantage of," Farrell told reporters. "He'll be with us about 85 days this year and more of those on the road."
During spring training, Tewksbury will sit down with the players for "mental skills" meetings, which will be tailored to be position-specific before eventually developing into individualized sessions later in camp, and started soon after pitchers reported last weekend.
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Napoli reported good news Saturday morning, telling reporters that a Thursday MRI revealed no additional damage from his degenerative hip condition. That allowed him to begin some light fielding drills and intensify his running on a treadmill, though he continues to be limited even as he vows to be ready for Opening Day.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.