Part 1 of a 10-day series on Red Sox questions that will be answered during spring training.
BOSTON -- Spring training aggravations for Red Sox manager Terry Francona, ranked in no particular order:
• Taking the nearly three-hour bus ride across the Sunshine Skyway to Dunedin.
• Getting addressed by an overeager autograph-seeker (or addled reporter) as “Tony”.
• Being asked about his Opening Day batting order before he’s ready to announce it, which is between, say, every single day in February and March and when the team is packing up to break camp in Florida.
But as the Red Sox ready to return to Fort Myers to prepare for the 2011 season, there is no more tantalizing topic to ponder than how Francona plans to integrate newcomers Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez into his lineup.
So that's the first in our daily series of 10 questions that will be answered in spring training: Who will bat where in what is potentially the most explosive Sox lineup since Johnny Damon was the table-setter, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz were a 21st-century Gehrig and Ruth, and an AL batting champion, Bill Mueller, hit ninth?
We'll pose a different question here every day for the next 10 days to warm you up for Fort Myers.
As to the lineup query, there have been a couple of hints. Francona has mentioned since the acquisition of Crawford that the Sox are at their best when Jacoby Ellsbury bats leadoff, which dovetails nicely with Crawford’s stated aversion to that spot when he was with Tampa Bay. Gonzalez said he hadn’t spoken with anyone in an official capacity about where he'd hit, but last month said he expected to hit cleanup, behind Ellsbury, Crawford and Dustin Pedroia, although he imagined Francona would experiment with other combinations in camp.
Last week, Francona put to rest, at least for the time being, any notion that Marco Scutaro would have to fight off a challenge from Jed Lowrie at shortstop, stating that Scutaro will return at the position while Lowrie will play all over the diamond.
Media types have weighed in. ESPN colleague Buster Olney this week proposed that Boston’s best lineup would have Pedroia leading off and Ellsbury hitting ninth, especially with Ellsbury having missed most of last season.
Me? After an initial first stab that 1) ignored Crawford’s dislike for the No. 1 spot and 2) gave short shrift to lefty-righty balance by stacking three left-handed hitters in a row (Ellsbury, Crawford, Gonzalez), which totally goes against how the Sox operate, I’ve come to lean toward the Gonzalez model, with Ellsbury and Crawford hitting 1-2, followed by Pedroia in the 3-spot, Gonzalez batting cleanup and Kevin Youkilis dropping down a spot to fifth, followed by David Ortiz. Francona may also be leaning that way, according to one club source, but good luck getting that admission from the manager himself.
We also asked for your opinions, and will continue to do so throughout this series. We received nearly 200 suggestions for a Sox lineup from you; here’s a sampling, beginning with my (latest) best guess:
The “You Get What You Pay For” lineup
“If you’re paying two guys 20+ million a year, they hit 3 and 4 in your lineup, period,’’ he writes, anticipating that Gonzalez will join Crawford in the $20 million club when he signs his extension. “We've got a great leadoff hitter in Ells, great No. 2 hitter in Pedroia, great 5 hitter in Youk, so put the boys where they should be: Crawford at 3 for average and speed and some good pop, slugger Gonzalez with good average at 4.’’
The “Speed, then more speed’’ lineup
Latenitedown is in agreement with yours truly; Francona is best served with Ellsbury and Crawford 1-2, followed by Pedroia, Gonzalez, Youkilis and Ortiz in the next four spots. He diverges from my lineup with the idea that Saltalamacchia hit seventh, followed by Drew and Scutaro.
“It's imperative that the fastest two guys in the league bat in tandem in order to maximize the potential strain on opposing pitchers,’’ he writes. “This proposed lineup additionally follows the lefty- righty trend characteristic of Red Sox teams in the past."
The “Speed at the top, speed at the bottom” lineup
This comes from ajl369, who envisions a lineup of Crawford, Pedroia, Gonzalez, Youkilis, Ortiz, Drew, Saltalamacchia/Varitek, Scutaro and Ellsbury.
“I think you’re getting a Johnny Damon-type player with Crawford at leadoff (better, actually), and then with Pedroia and the heart of that lineup, scoring runs will be no problem. I don't think Ellsbury should be handed the leadoff role right away coming off the injury. If he produces at the 9-spot, then think about moving him. Plus with Scutaro eighth and Ellsbury ninth, it’s like having to face two leadoffs hitters again before you make it through the lineup.’’
The “Batting eighth, J.D. Drew” lineup
This is the brainchild of Mikesnow49, who would sandwich Pedroia between Ellsbury and Crawford at the top of the lineup, have a 4-5-6 of Gonzalez, Youkilis and Ortiz, but then have Scutaro hit after Ortiz, with Drew in the 8-hole. The obvious flaw in this lineup is that pitchers presumably would pitch around Ortiz to face Scutaro, but hey, who am I, the man of three straight lefties, to talk?
“Does Drew really need to bat in front of Scutaro?’’ he writes. “I think not. I don't want Ortiz and Drew back-to-back, where any lefty can come in and make them both look foolish. I have no problem with Drew hitting eighth, he takes a lot of pitches and can sometimes be clutch. Pitchers won't focus on him as much in the eighth spot, so expect more fastballs.’’
The “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” lineup
The way EyCapernicus sees it, the Ellsbury-Pedroia combination at the top of the Sox order should not be split up. He would have Crawford and Gonzalez follow, with Youkilis in the 5-hole.
“Tito has said he wants Ellsbury at the top of the lineup. I don't see him wavering on that point,’’ he writes. “Pedroia is great in the No. 2 spot. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
“Crawford, despite a lack of power, has proven himself to be able to drive in runs. With a speed demon like Ellsbury on the basepaths, followed by a great contact hitter like Pedroia, and top it off with a guy who can drive in runs? Perfect. Home runs are overrated.’’
The “Joystick” lineup
This comes from wiggles419, whose faith in his lineup -- Ellsbury, Pedroia, Crawford, Gonzalez, Youkilis, Ortiz -- is justified by how well it has performed in a video game.
“This would work,’’ he writes. “I put it in my PS3 games and I am DESTROYING teams.
“OK, but seriously, every one of your top six hitters are feared in one way or another by pitchers, and each will make it more difficult to pitch to the batter in front of them, so these guys will see some good pitches. J.D. Drew as your No. 7 hitter? It doesn’t get much better, not to mention Marco Scutaro probably the best No. 9 hitter in the majors.’’
And finally, the “By The Numbers” Lineup
This is offered by wintersej, who proposed this stats-driven combination, then hedged his bets by saying he liked Buster’s lineup too.
1. Drew (L)
2. Pedroia (R)
3. Ortiz (L)
4. Gonzalez (L)
5. Youkilis (R)
6. Crawford (L)
7. Ellsbury (L)
8. Salty/Tek (S)
9. Lowrie (S)
“If Drew goes back to being a .370 OBP guy (his BABIP was 30 points below his norm last year), he should be in the leadoff spot so he can be on base to be driven in,’’ he writes. “The No. 3 hitter is less important than the 4 and 5 hitters because it’s more likely for him to come up with the bases empty. So we throw Ortiz there. Speed guys are more effective, not in front of power hitters, but in front of singles guys. That's why we put Crawford and Ellsbury at 6 and 7 so they can run wild with the lighter hitters up at the plate. The weakest hitter is in the 8 spot, so the lineup turns over more efficiently.’’
The frustrating aspect, for those eager to know how Francona will fill out his lineup card on April 1 in Texas, is that the early exhibition games will offer little clue. Gonzalez won’t be recovered from shoulder surgery, and split-squad games and long bus rides mean the regular lineup will seldom be together. The last week or so should offer some clues, but the variables, including health, will be an issue.
But that shouldn’t detract from the fun of trying to guess.
Coming Tuesday: Will any of last year’s injuries carry over?