ESPN’s Buster Olney rang in the new month with a series of questions atop his latest Insider column, examining what some of the biggest lineup-related uncertainties there are across Major League Baseball as we rapidly approach the start of Spring Training. Among the items he brings up, one is the unanswered quandary regarding who hits leadoff for the Boston Red Sox.
There wouldn’t appear to be a logical candidate for the role.
Boston’s leadoff hitters ranked first in on-base percentage last season and third in runs scored, but the guy primarily responsible for that is gone. So now John Farrell has to decide who will replace Jacoby Ellsbury in the No. 1 spot in his batting order.
He’s got a few imperfect candidates such as Dustin Pedroia, who actually has done some of his worst work when he’s hit leadoff, or Jackie Bradley, who doesn’t have a lot of experience, or maybe Xander Bogaerts, who may ultimately be needed to hit in the middle of the Boston order.
But the Red Sox are likely to open the year with Bradley at or near the bottom of their lineup to help ease his transition into the big leagues. They’ll probably use a combination of hitters in the leadoff spot – Daniel Nava against right-handed pitchers, given his high OBP (.411 versus right-handers in 2013) and against lefties, maybe Shane Victorino (.861 OPS versus lefties in ‘13) or even Jonny Gomes (.795 versus lefties in ‘13).
That impact at the top of the Boston lineup is ultimately going to be what this team will miss most from Ellsbury. Spending the bulk of his seven years with the Red Sox, Ellsbury was a .292/.345/.429 hitter from the leadoff spot in the lineup. He’d show some glimpses of power (219 extra base hits – 142 doubles, 28 triples, 49 home runs) and some solid, though inconsistent speed on the bases with 202 steals.
There’s a belief within the organization that Ellsbury’s defensive value can be replaced with relative ease by Bradley. Olney is right, however, that Bradley isn’t a logical choice to try and fill the offensive void that is being left atop the lineup. He’s just simply too inexperienced and needs to learn to hit with consistency at the Major League level before he worries about trying to fill the leadoff role.
Pedroia and Bogaerts are also likely non-options here, at least long term. They’re both just simply going to prove more valuable in the heart of the lineup instead.
Olney’s final point – essentially a platoon involving Nava and Victorino – just may prove to be the most likely option as the team prepares to leave for Ft. Myers.
Nava is a .252/.343/.367 hitter from the leadoff spot, but hasn’t spent a significant amount of time there to date. His ability to slide up and down the lineup has been an asset over his brief career. Perhaps the biggest question surrounding Nava, however, is just how frequently he’ll make his way into the starting lineup. Most safe projections estimate that Nava will essentially platoon with Gomes (who’s hardly a serious candidate to lead off) in left field. Nava could also see time at first base or even at designated hitter, depending on whether Mike Napoli or David Ortiz need a day off.
Nava’s ability to get on base (a career .369 on base percentage) could be an asset atop the order. He had a few hot streaks in his career, but 2013 was really the first time he was able to find sustained success over the course of the full season. If he can harness that – winning most of the playing time in left – then he could be an option in the leadoff spot.
Victorino’s career splits from the leadoff spot aren’t overly inspiring. He’s a .249/.317/.408 hitter from the spot in over 1,000 plate appearances. For his career those numbers increase to .277/.342/.432. Victorino is under contract for two more seasons and did see success in the #2 hole (.298/.357/.459 in 481 PA) where he spent most of last season. He wasn’t brought in to hit leadoff, as he’s never been an ideal one in his career. He may have to work into the mix a little more in 2014, however, depending on how the rest of the team’s lineup shakes out that day.
Ellsbury’s value hitting leadoff was often understated in Boston and there are no clear options to step in and replace it. Boston may not need someone to be the “new Ellsbury”, however. There’s enough depth and strengths in this lineup that it shouldn’t need to rely on having that one star at the beginning of the line.