More than anything else, the loss of Jacoby Ellsbury this winter means that the Red Sox will need to completely rework their lineup. When healthy over the last several years, Ellsbury was one of the best, if not the best leadoff hitter in baseball and the Red Sox will have a large hole at the top of their lineup heading into the new season. However, this is not a hole that cannot be patched up. I have compiled three candidates that could take over the leadoff role in 2014, all of whom would provide solid offensive value that could greatly lessen the blow of Ellsbury signing with the Yankees: Daniel Nava, Dustin Pedroia, and Shane Victorino.
Daniel Nava: The top two qualities in a leadoff hitter are generally considered to be on-base ability and speed. Nava doesn’t have great speed, but his elite on-base ability may be enough to make up for it. 2013 was a breakout year for the soon to be 31 year old outfielder, as he slashed .303/.385/.445, posting the fifth best on-base percentage in the league. It is possible that Nava will regress in 2014, but his on-base percentage has always been elite, as evidenced by his career mark of .369 and he should provide value due to that. Another concern with Nava is that he has severe platoon splits; while he slashed .322/.411/.484 against righties, he hit just .252/.311/.336. If Nava was to be used in the leadoff spot, then it would likely have to be in a platoon role.
Dustin Pedroia: Pedroia had been used to the role of the #2 hitter throughout much of his early career, but he moved down one spot to #3 in 2013. While he had a great season by normal standards, slashing .301/.372/.415 with excellent defense as usual, his power was hampered by an early-season thumb injury. Pedroia’s power will likely come back to its normal levels (he is a career .302/.370/.454 hitter), making him a better and more well-rounded hitter– the perfect type for the leadoff spot. Like Nava, he does not have elite speed, but unlike Nava he can steal a base every now and then as Pedroia stole 17 bags in 2013 and has averaged 19 per 162 games in his career. Pedroia is similar to Nava in terms of on-base ability, but should have an edge in both speed and power, making him more a fit for his career norm as the #2 hitter.
Shane Victorino: Finally, we have Victorino, who profiles as the more conventional leadoff hitter. At this point, Victorino is probably the fastest player on the Red Sox and had a surprisingly good offensive season in 2013, as he slashed .294/.351/.451 while playing Gold Glove defense in right field. However, Victorino’s fate in 2014 will largely depend on whether he goes back to switch-hitting, as he has for most of his career, or continues to hit solely right-handed. After switching to batting from the right side at all times, Victorino had a tremendous power surge and hot streak in August and September, even slashing .300/.386/.510 off of same-side pitching during this stretch. If Victorino continues to bat from the right side, then he is the obvious choice for the leadoff role. Though his power will likely fall off, he will get on base at consistent clips while adding some pop and more speed than either Pedroia or Nava. However, if Victorino decides to return to switch-hitting, then he will likely need to be platooned as he slashed just .274/.317/.389 as a left-handed batter.
While it remains to be seen whether he puts it into action or not, Victorino has said that he will return to switch-hitting. This may not be the best plan for his future, but if that’s what he decides then the Red Sox cannot change it. Keeping this in mind, a platoon is likely the best situation for the leadoff spot next season. A platoon of Daniel Nava against right-handers and Shane Victorino against left-handers would be a great platoon as both players will post OPS’s in the .800′s against opposite-handed pitching and Victorino will add some speed to boot. The rest of the lineup would likely see Pedroia slide to the #2 hole with Victorino moving down towards the bottom of the lineup and Nava likely out of the lineup with Jonny Gomes manning left field. Though the leadoff platoon will be a different look for the Red Sox, there’s a good chance that Nava and Victorino could be a dynamic duo atop the order.