Let's spend the next two days examining lineups. We spend a lot of time debating and arguing about lineups, more so because it's fun than important. Not important? Well, sure, there's some importance to setting an optimal lineup, but statistical studies show there isn't a big difference in expected runs scored between the most optimal lineups and slightly less optimal ones. Of course, there is a much bigger difference between the best possible and worst possible lineup, but no manager runs out his worst lineup -- hitting Mike Trout ninth or batting pitchers leadoff, for example.
Still, we obsess over batting orders even though most teams run out many lineups in a season. The Red Sox used 126 lineups last year. The Cardinals used 89 (not including pitchers), which is actually pretty stable. We talk a lot about "protection" even though studies show hitters don't generally perform better based on the caliber of hitter coming up behind them. If anything, it's the caliber of hitter in front that may be more important; if there are runners on base, it's more difficult for the pitcher to pitch around a hitter.
Managers still make some common mistakes, however. Studies show you should put your best hitter in the No. 2 spot in the order, but no manager does that; too many still think they need to put a contact/slap hitter there. Managers will focus on speed from the leadoff spot at the expense of on-base percentage, the result being that eight teams finished with an OBP below .320 from the leadoff spot last season. Only the Braves of those eight teams made the playoffs. In fact, of the teams with the 12 lowest OBPs from the leadoff spot, only two finished with a winning record, the Braves and Royals.
A trend in recent years has been to "split" your left-handed hitters -- Dusty Baker hit Shin-Soo Choo first, Joey Votto third and Jay Bruce fifth, for example. In worrying about the possibility of letting a lefty reliever face Votto and Bruce back-to-back, Baker ultimately sacrificed at-bats from Bruce for worse hitters. He would have been better off moving Bruce up in the lineup (at least against right-handed starters).
Anyway, let's look at each division, starting with the National League East.
Key question: Who hits leadoff?
As seen above, the Braves struggled with production from the leadoff spot much of last season before manager Fredi Gonzalez finally settled on Jason Heyward. I'm sure Gonzalez would love to see B.J. Upton or Andrelton Simmons take ownership of that role, but Upton will have to prove himself after last year's stink bomb and Simmons had a sub-.300 OBP.
Jason Heyward, RF
Justin Upton, LF
Freddie Freeman, 1B
Evan Gattis, C
Chris Johnson, 3B
Andrelton Simmons, SS
Dan Uggla, 2B
B.J. Upton, CF
For a team that won 96 games, the Braves have several issues, including the likelihood that Gattis isn't a cleanup hitter and Johnson regresses. If Johnson proves to be a .300 hitter again, you're likely to see him move up in the order, perhaps hitting second with Justin Upton sliding down to the cleanup spot (or Freeman, who hit cleanup the first half of 2013).
If B.J. Upton struggles again, I wouldn't hesitate to move Heyward over to center field and give Ryan Doumit regular time in right field.
Key question: Where does Bryce Harper hit?
Former manager Davey Johnson started Harper in five different spots in the order: Third (71 times), fourth (18 times), first (16 times), second (eight times) and fifth (once). He began the season hitting third and had that torrid April before crashing into a wall in early May. Over the final two weeks he hit cleanup, with Jayson Werth in the third spot.
Denard Span, CF
Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
Jayson Werth, RF
Bryce Harper, LF
Ian Desmond, SS
Adam LaRoche, 1B
Anthony Rendon, 2B
Wilson Ramos, C
The Nationals have a lot of flexibility here. If Rendon improves as a sophomore he could eventually work his way up in the order. Harper and Werth had the two best OBPs last year and my inclination would be to hit them second and fourth and move Desmond up to the third spot.
Span had the lowest OPS of these eight guys. While he best fits the conventional idea of a leadoff hitter, he's also the worst hitter in the group. So why give him more plate appearances? Rendon is a good bet to improve on his .329 OBP. Move him up to the leadoff spot and Span down to eighth.
Key question: Is Terry Collins really going to hit Eric Young Jr. leadoff?
Last month, Collins told ESPN New York's Adam Rubin that Young is his primary leadoff candidate. The Mets ranked 28th in the majors in leadoff OBP (.293), so they need to improve there. Young led the NL with 46 steals, so leadoff hitter! Except two things: Young's OBP was just .310, and if he plays every day, that could mean benching Juan Lagares, who hit just .242/.281/.352 but played tremendous defense in center field and was worth 3.7 WAR.
Eric Young Jr., LF
Daniel Murphy, 2B
David Wright, 3B
Lucas Duda, 1B
Chris Young, CF
Ruben Tejada, SS
That's assuming Collins is determined to play Eric Young every day. Chris Young didn't hit with the A's last year so he's no guarantee to produce, but I suspect the Mets will want to give him an opportunity. Also, the Mets know their metrics. They know Lagares is a superb center fielder (but Young was very good in his Arizona days). I could be wrong; maybe they view Chris Young as a fourth outfielder and Lagares as the starter.
Collins needs to show a lot of flexibility. As one example, Murphy shouldn't hit second against left-handers -- .273/.292/.324 last year. In fact, with his subpar range at second base, he probably shouldn't even start against lefties (EYJR could play there). I also wouldn't hit EYJR leadoff on a regular basis -- the steals just don't cover the poor OBP and lack of power. Why not hit Murphy leadoff against righties? He was 23 for 26 on steals last year and you could slide Granderson up to second, for a Murphy-Granderson-Wright-Duda top four.
Key question: Who hits at the top of the order?
The Phillies used four different leadoff hitters for 20-plus games last year and four No. 2 hitters for at least 16 games. The results were a .313 OBP from the leadoff spot and .315 from the No. 2 hole.
Ben Revere, CF
Chase Utley, 2B
Marlon Byrd, RF
Ryan Howard, 1B
Domonic Brown, LF
Jimmy Rollins, SS
Carlos Ruiz, C
Cody Asche, 3B
That's a more conventional approach, but first impressions on new manager Ryne Sandberg are that he's going to be pretty conventional. In fact, when he took over last season from Charlie Manuel, he most often hit Rollins second and Utley third, so he may stick with that (even though Utley is in some ways comparable to Sandberg, who hit second much of his career).
Revere is fast, but his complete lack of power and mediocre OBP means he should hit eighth not leadoff. Rollins is coming off the worst year of his career and no longer profiles as a top-of-the-order bat. Why not just put your best on-base guys at the top and go Utley-Brown-Byrd?
Key question: They scored 89 fewer runs than any other NL team last year.
OK, that's a statement, not a question. But there's nowhere to go but up since they scored just 513 runs, tied with the 2010 Mariners for the lowest total in a non-strike season since 1972.
Rafael Furcal, 2B
Christian Yelich, LF
Garrett Jones, 1B
Marcell Ozuna, CF
Casey McGehee, 3B
I'm doubtful about McGehee, who did hit 27 home runs in Japan last season, but for now he projects as the starting third baseman. Likewise with Furcal, who missed all of 2013. Back in December, manager Mike Redmond said his initial thoughts were to go with Furcal, Yelich and Stanton, with Jones or Salty batting fourth and sixth, split by the right-handed Ozuna. Two days ago he reiterated his plans to hit Furcal and Yelich 1-2.
Nothing really. It's difficult to make filet mignon out of ground chuck. With Yelich, Jones and Salty, the Marlins could be decent against right-handed pitching.