Red Sox could take flexible approach to filling leadoff spot

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 03: Andrew Benintendi #16 of the Boston Red Sox hits a home run during the eighth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park on September 03, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 03: Andrew Benintendi #16 of the Boston Red Sox hits a home run during the eighth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park on September 03, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

The Red Sox might not stick with the same leadoff hitter all season.

The Boston Red Sox have a gaping hole to fill at the top of their lineup following the departure of Mookie Betts, widely considered among the best leadoff hitters in baseball. Andrew Benintendi will get the first crack at claiming that role but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll remain in that spot all season.

Benintendi started last year leading off, swapping spots with Betts in an effort to give more run producing opportunities to the former MVP. The plan backfired when Benny sputtered out of the gate by going 5-for-42 (.119), forcing then-manager Alex Cora to pull the plug on the experiment.

Recency bias would lead us to believe that Benintendi isn’t fit for the leadoff spot but he possess the skill set to thrive in the role. His smooth swing, keen batting eye and decent speed have led to Benintendi reaching base at a solid clip and he’s shown the ability to swipe 20+ bases in previous seasons.

Last year was a clear step back marred by his slow start but he had success in the leadoff spot in previous years and owns a decent .276/.363/.469 slash line at the top of the batting order for his career.

Benintendi has proven capable of handling the role in the past but the Red Sox need to be prepared for the possibility of a recurrence of last year’s struggles. If Benny isn’t living up to expectations early in the season, Boston has other options they can pivot to.

Alex Verdugo is the leading candidate to ascend to the top of the lineup if Benintendi doesn’t pan out. He rarely had the opportunity to leadoff in his brief career with the Los Angeles Dodgers and was a mere 1-for-11 in that spot. Given the minuscule sample size, Boston needs to look at the skill set of the player rather than his limited production in the role.

Manager Ron Roenicke recognizes that and views Verdugo as a potential leadoff option, according to MassLive’s Christopher Smith.

"“Down the road, I think he has everything you would need in a leadoff hitter,” Roenicke said about Verdugo during a Zoom conference call Monday. “And when he starts finding his rhythm and his timing, and he gets confident, I think we can put him anywhere. Whether it’s leadoff, second. Whether it’s fifth, sixth, seventh. Wherever that is, I think offensively he could do a good job.”"

Verdugo is coming off a strong rookie campaign with the Dodgers in which he hit .294/.342/.475 with 12 home runs, 22 doubles and 44 RBI in 343 at-bats.

The Red Sox acquired Verdugo in the trade that shipped Betts and David Price to Los Angeles. A back fracture put Verdugo on the shelf last August, forcing him to miss the remainder of the season. He was still recovering when the Red Sox gathered for spring training in Fort Myers and he didn’t appear in any Grapefruit League games before camp was shut down by the pandemic.

Verdugo is now back at full strength but he’s still trying to find his timing at the plate and has struggled in intrasquad games during summer camp. He’s not ready to be inserted near the top of the lineup but he could force his way into a more prominent role if he heats up.

Roenicke also hinted that he might mix up the lineup against left-handed pitchers. Rafael Devers is expected to fill the No. 2 spot in the lineup and the manager is hesitant to start consecutive lefties at the top of the order against a southpaw.

Roenicke mentioned Kevin Pillar and Jose Peraza as right-handed options he could turn to in that scenario.

"“I know Pillar can do it. I feel good with him up there against the left-handers,” Roenicke said. “And then we’ll just kind of see. We’ll see how Peraza hits. He’s a possibility. He’s a guy I’m familiar with that used to be a good base runner, a good base stealer. So I think we have some options.”"

Pillar was brought in to be a right-handed complement to Boston’s lefty-heavy outfield. He’s historically hit lefties well, owning a career .281/.313/.453 against them. We could see him platoon in center field with Jackie Bradley Jr. and occasionally give Benny a day off considering both have been less effective against lefties.

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Verdugo actually has reverse splits so there’s no reason to hide his bat against a lefty. He could cement himself as the everyday leadoff hitter if he earns that promotion but until then, Pillar is a strong candidate to take over for Benny at the top of the lineup against lefties.

Peraza has impressed in camp and appears to be carving out a decent role with this team. Boston scooped him up in the bargain bin following a dismal 2019 campaign but he’s been reminding us of the upside he flashed at his peak in Cincinnati since spring training.

Roenicke is clearly enamored with his speed, which can be a useful asset from a leadoff hitter. Peraza has swiped 20+ bases three times in his career.

He also has a strong track record against lefties, owning a career .297/.333/.406 line against them. While his career on-base percentage wouldn’t suggest that he’s an ideal leadoff candidate, he could be used in that role against left-handed starters. We should expect Peraza to at least be in the lineup as the second baseman against lefties, if not on an everyday bases.

Most teams prefer the stability of having one player they can stick in the leadoff spot on a regular bases. Part of what made Betts so valuable was that he had few weaknesses and could be counted on to lead the offense against any type of pitcher. The Red Sox no longer have the luxury of that type of player so they’ll need to mix and match the options at their disposal.

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Being flexible with how they utilize the leadoff spot allows the Red Sox to take advantage of certain matchups and should be the best way to maximize production from the top of the lineup.