FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It's a discussion we assumed could wait, because of the belief that Carl Crawford would be unable to play Opening Day because of his surgically repaired left wrist.
But now that it's possible Crawford may indeed beat projections and play in the opener, it's time to offer our first unsolicited piece of advice to new manager Bobby Valentine -- even before the first full-squad workout of 2012.
Forget that Crawford had the lowest on-base percentage of any Red Sox left fielder in history last year, .289. Better yet, when it comes to Crawford, forget about last year altogether.
Wipe the slate clean, restore him to the No. 2 spot in the batting order, and turn him loose along with leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of the lineup.
Some people like to make the argument that it's a waste of time to talk about lineups because teams employ so many of them. But that's silly. Sure, Terry Francona employed 123 batting orders in 2011, but the core of that lineup essentially remained unchanged. It was Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz, in that order.
Here's what we propose:
For now, we don't have to go any further than that. We'll let Valentine determine the identity of his starting shortstop and right fielder before we fill out the bottom third of his order.
But we are certain it avails no one for Crawford, whose game depends on his legs, to hit in the lower third of the order, or even sixth.
Yes, we recognize that this lineup doesn't feature the kind of left-right balance that traditionalists consider ideal. Well, in 2000, Valentine took a Mets team to a World Series that had just one left-handed hitter, Robin Ventura, in the everyday lineup. Heck, Valentine had only one other left-handed hitter with more than 150 at-bats, utilityman Matt Franco.
In 1991, his best season with the Texas Rangers, Valentine used 129 different orders and had a rookie leadoff man, Dean Palmer, who morphed into a power hitter later in his career. He can make different combinations work.
And that's how he says he likes to look at lineups, as groupings.
"It's not about [where] Crawford [is] hitting in the lineup," Valentine said earlier this week. "I think of the lineup as a grouping of people. We'll see how they all run around together, play together, fit together, and that's where each person will be."
Makes sense to us. And we like a grouping of Crawford with Ellsbury and Pedroia far better than him being grouped with Cody Ross/Ryan Sweeney and Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Mike Aviles/Nick Punto/Jose Iglesias.
It's an easy second guess to say Terry Francona made a big mistake when he yanked Crawford out of the 2-hole as quickly as he did and dropped him to the 7-spot just 13 games into the season, creating another major adjustment to Crawford when he already was drowning in his new surroundings.
But remember the circumstances. The Sox had lost their first six games of the season and were still 3-10 when Tito made the change. Crawford had just two hits in 22 at-bats over his previous five games, was batting .127 overall (7-for-55), had just one extra-base hit and had more whiffs (10) than hits.
The town was in full-throated panic, smoke was pouring out of John Henry's laptop, Theo Epstein was in Francona's ear and the manager had to do something to brake the free fall. Crawford never recovered, and when he came into camp, he suggested many of his problems stemmed from the switch.
"We started out the season wanting to hit him up high in the order," Francona said in an interview on WEEI earlier this week. "As the season unfolded rather quickly, the five guys we hit from 1-5, I think they broke records for offensive production. I'm not sure where, being a responsible manager, if I shoved [Crawford] in there, I'd have been doing the right thing for the team.
"There's no way to get around it. He was struggling. He was having a hard time and he acknowledged that when we sat down and talked to him about hitting him lower in the order and just making sure he understood it."
Fair enough. But one year later, Crawford is giving every indication that he has a better grasp of what he's up against in Boston, and there's little to be gained by making it bigger than it is. It's not exactly courageous to forecast a bounce-back season for Crawford. If anything, it's hard to find a baseball person who predicts the opposite.
So place Crawford second, leave Ellsbury alone, even though his power numbers deserve at least some thought of putting him third, trust that Pedroia will hit anywhere you put him in the lineup, figure Ortiz and Gonzalez will hit 60 to 70 home runs between them and hope that Youkilis can stay healthy.
Some look at these Red Sox as tragically flawed because they have holes at short and right field. Well, the Sox got little out of both corner outfielders (Crawford and J.D. Drew) last season, Youkilis played just 120 games and the shortstop, Marco Scutaro, tacked on 27 points to his batting average in the last month. Yet, the Sox still scored 875 runs in 2011, their greatest output since putting up 910 in 2005.
Crawford will be a difference-maker in 2012. Blind faith? No, common sense. He's simply been too good for too long. And don't forget in the midst of everything else he was getting injections in his wrist, too.
So, put him in the No. 2 spot and leave him there, even if he is hitting .200 on Patriots' Day. May Day. Memorial Day. Let the same rules apply to Carl Crawford as they did for David Ortiz. In 2009, Ortiz was batting .185 with one home run on Memorial Day and he finished with 28 home runs and 99 RBIs.
If Crawford is still hitting .200 on the Fourth of July? Then you call Theo and tell him Crawford is all his.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.