2018 Season Preview: Lineup

2018 is an interesting year for the Boston Red Sox. There’s still lingering questions after a successful yet ultimately disappointing 2017 in which the Sox took their second straight AL East crown but faltered in the ALDS once again. Some of those said questions can be answered with the blockbuster acquisition of J.D. Martinez (like who’s going to fill the David Ortiz sized hole in the middle of the lineup). Aside from that, though, there’s still a lot of uncertainty entering the season.

Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Hanley Ramirez, and Jackie Bradley Jr. all underperformed last year (some more than others). Will they be able to find their form of years passed again, or will we in Red Sox Nation be left wondering who they really are?

Dustin Pedroia is injured to begin the season, an issue that seems to become more and more common as he creeps into his mid-30’s. Will he be able to stay healthy and be the dirt-dog style clubhouse leader the team expects him to be?

Rafael Devers is coming off of an impressive rookie season. Will he continue to improve and become a formidable offensive weapon, or will he hit a sophomore slump like so many others?

Brock Holt and Mitch Moreland will both be healthy for the first time since midway through 2017. Will they provide the necessary spark asked of them off the bench in more of a platooned/utility type role?

The answer to these and other questions won’t begin to take shape until the meat of the season rolls around in mid-May or so, but for now we can make our best guesses.

Defensively, the Red Sox’s lineup is pretty straightforward, as in we pretty much know who’s going to be playing where. We have to wait and see how the rest of Spring Training plays out to shape the depth chart (which is a very interesting prospect. More on that to come), but I’d expect the Opening Day defensive lineup to look like this:

P-Chris Sale (more on the starting pitchers to come in my season preview for them next week).

C-Sandy Leon. I see Vazquez remaining the #1 for the season, but Leon was Sale’s guy last year, and I don’t expect Alex Cora to mess with that.

1B-Hanley Ramirez. Gold Glover Mitch Moreland signed a 2-year deal in the offseason, but Hanley Ramirez was surprisingly impressive defensively at first last year. Considering offensive talent, I expect Hanley to get the Opening Day start, but expect to see a decent amount of Moreland throughout the year, especially if Ramirez struggles the way he did in 2017.

2B-Eduardo Nunez. Obviously this is Pedey’s spot when he gets back. Nunez, coming off of perhaps the finest year of his career, is just fine holding down the fort to begin the year.

3B-Rafael Devers. Easy Call. One of the highest rated youngsters not just in the Red Sox organization, but in all of baseball as well.

SS-Xander Bogaerts. Another easy call, although he’s looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2017.

LF-Andrew Benintendi. The outfield spots are by far the least complicated for the Sox. 3 young and talented players make it a no-brainer for Cora.

CF-Jackie Bradley Jr. See above. Perhaps the best defensive CF in the MLB.

RF-Mookie Betts. Again, see above.

DH-J.D. Martinez. Honestly, who else?

That outfield is stacked defensively. Many experts argue the case for the “3 B’s” being the best defensive outfield in all of baseball. It seems like every night there’s a highlight reel catch or throw from one of those guys. JBJ’s defensive ability, specifically, is particularly impressive in the vast Fenway center field, and is the most logical reason for the Sox’s loyalty in sticking with him despite his struggles at the plate.

J.D. Martinez could see some time in RF, although I doubt Cora would want to risk him getting injured out there more than a handful of times. Blake Swihart and Brock Holt are both utility guys capable of playing in the outfield (Swihart in LF, Holt at either of the corner spots), and they’ll be stating their cases for playing time throughout the year. Expect to see them out on the grass a bit (depending on how the roster ultimately shapes out. Again, more on that below).

The infield is a little more up and down. As mentioned, Mitch Moreland is a Gold Glove caliber 1st baseman, and Hanley surprised many with his consistency in that spot in 2017. Nunez performed pretty well in his half-season in Boston at 2nd with a .979 fielding %, and Pedroia is a 4-time Gold Glover with a career fielding % of .991. Xander Bogaerts had a very bad 2017 by his standards, but he had been a solid defensive SS over his 3+ years prior to that, and at 3rd is Devers, who we need to see more of to really get a gauge of who he’s going to be there.

Like the case with the backup outfield spots, we have to wait to see what roster moves are made at the end of Spring Training (once again, keep reading. I’ll get to the bench spots), but Swihart is capable of playing 3rd, 1st, and catcher, Holt can be used at 2nd, 3rd, or SS, and Deven Marrero was the backup SS last year. Two of those 3 will be seeing time at those respective positions.

Behind the plate will be Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon splitting time, both of whom (especially Leon) are known for calling a pretty good game, although neither has a particularly strong arm to catch runners stealing.

Moving on to the batting order, the Red Sox are stacked, and should be one of the most potent offenses in the AL. There’s so many nuances, possibilities, and questions entering 2018 that I could write a dissertation, but there’s three main points of interest, as far as I’m concerned, that pertain to this squad.

1: Where will J.D. Martinez bat, and who will be his protection behind him?

2: Mookie Betts is, in my opinion, our best pure hitter, so do we want to use him in the 3-hole, as the best pure hitter is usually deployed, or do we want to slot him in at leadoff to get him the most AB’s possible?

3: Will the guys mentioned at the top of this article perform to the level we hope and/or expect from them, or will they underwhelm?

In regard to #1, Cora will most likely use Martinez at 3, but I’d personally like to see him at cleanup where he has the best opportunity to hit with multiple runners on base ahead of him. If he lines up at 3, I see either Hanley or Devers directly behind him, giving opposing pitchers something to think about before they intentionally send him to 1st. Hanley would be the safe call, as he has the most experience and power between the two, but I’m intrigued by the prospect of handing Devers the reins and trusting him to get the job done. If Martinez lines up in the 4-spot, though, I would assume Hanley would bat in front of him at 3 and either Devers or Bogaerts would take the 5-hole.

When it comes to Mookie, the answer is a little more difficult to come by. Here are my scenarios: if Mookie bats leadoff, I’d like to see Cora put someone with a higher OBP at the bottom of the order (8 or 9) in order to fully utilize Betts’ power and ability to drive in runs. If Betts bats 3rd, the Sox lose his game changing speed at the top of the order, but they get to use his aforementioned adeptness at driving in runs in the heart or the order. If it was my call, I’d leadoff with Betts and put Bogaerts at 8 to provide him with a consistent baserunner to drive in.

And finally, speaking on #3, the short is answer is I, nor anyone really, simply just don’t know how some of Boston’s more prolific and important names will perform. Most of the Spring Training performances up to this point have been encouraging, but Spring Training is Spring Training, and baseball ramps up in intensity and emphasis once the games actually start to matter.

We can make assumptions, of course. Based on track record and talent, I’d expect bounce back years from the both very gifted Betts and Bogaerts, and I think a fully healthy Moreland, Holt, and Pedroia will all be considerable assets, as well as Eduardo Nunez in a back-up role. I’m still not sold on Hanley Ramirez, since his time in Boston has consisted of one very good year (2016) and two sub-par seasons (2015 and 2017), but Devers seems to be on the right track in his progression, and I believe he’ll improve as hoped and possibly take over Ramirez’s role as the second power bat in the middle of the order.

My ideal Opening Day lineup is:

1-Betts

2-Benintendi

3-Ramirez

4-Martinez

5-Devers

6-Nunez (swap in Pedroia when he returns)

7-JBJ

8-Bogaerts

9-Vazquez/Leon

Betts at leadoff gets him the most AB’s possible, and Benintendi (who I see having a huge year) through Devers are all more than capable of driving him in.

At the bottom half, I know that it’s risky batting JBJ 7th when he’s a career .239 hitter, but he possesses decent power, and I think he’ll improve enough at the plate in his 5th full season to warrant a bump up in the order. I also acknowledge that it’s strange to see Pedroia way down at 6th when we’re accustomed to seeing him at 2 or 3, but at 34-years old (he turns 35 in August) and coming off of 2 DL-warranting injuries in the last 3 years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him begin to decline at the plate. Lastly, as I stated above, Bogaerts would be an ideal hitter in the 8-hole with his respectable .339 career OBP, providing Betts with a consistent baserunner at leadoff.

Here, though, is what I think the Opening Day lineup will actually look like:

1-Betts

2-Benintendi

3-Martinez

4-Ramirez

5-Devers

6-Bogaerts

7-Nunez (Pedroia)

8-Vazquez/Leon

9-JBJ

Alex Cora has said that he would like to bat Martinez 3rd and Hanley 4th, which is why I have those two in those specific spots. I could feasibly see Bogaerts returning to his 2015/2016 form and earning his way up to 2 or 3, which would switch the order around a little (presumably just bumping everyone else down one spot), but I could also see Betts being switched to #3 with Benintendi or Bogaerts batting 1st, and maybe Ramirez, Martinez and Devers swapping in and out of the 3-5 spots if the Sox get off to a slow start offensively, plus Pedroia could also come back and put up monster numbers like in the past and warrant a move up to the top of the order, and so on, and so on, and so on. The point is, there’s plenty of talent on this team to allow Cora to tinker and shuffle guys around until he finds what he likes.

Finally, the bench situation is one of most interesting entering 2018. Sandy Leon has the 2nd catcher spot locked up, and Mitch Moreland will be platooning with Hanley Ramirez at 1st, leaving Blake Swihart, Brock Holt, and Deven Marrero battling it out for what is likely the final two spots on the roster. Obviously, the Sox would love to find a way to keep all of them. Swihart is a young, extremely talented, multi-positional player who’s tearing it up down in Ft. Myers this year; Holt is a veteran guy who has proven he can be effective in a utility-type role; and Marrero is the only natural SS (and extremely talented with the glove, to boot) behind Bogaerts. Although I think that all of them deserve to make this squad, it seems as though a trade, release, or assignment involving one of those guys is imminent simply due to a lack of space on the roster. My money is on Marrero being either traded or released, considering he’s the weak link offensively, and he’s out of options in his contract.

Wrapping it all up, although things are starting to take shape, and we’re getting an idea of what the squad will look like, there’s still a lot of Spring Training ball to be played, a lot of conversations to be had, and a lot of thinking and planning to be done.

Overall, we should be confident in this lineup. I think that we’ll be both defensively efficient and offensively productive. The addition of Martinez is a huge relief, as power was the main concern entering 2018. Now, we just need to hope that we see a bounce back from the guys who had a down 2017, and progression and maturation from the young guys.

Finally, my very specific predictions:

Offensive MVP – J.D. Martinez: .295 BA, 33 HR, 112 RBI

Defensive MVP – JBJ: Gold Glove in CF

Most Improved – Xander Bogaerts: .310 BA, 19 HR, 74 RBI, .988 fielding %

Biggest Disappointment – Hanley Ramirez: .251 BA, 18 HR, 53 RBI

All-Stars: J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi

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