I can’t remember another year where the Red Sox Opening Day starting lineup was so up in the air.
J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts are gone. Trevor Story is hurt. Triston Casas, a heralded rookie who is expected to be a solid contributor in 2023, has 76 Major League at bats. Masataka Yoshida, the OBP machine and WBC hero that is expected to be one of the offensive centerpieces, has zero. Justin Turner and Adam Duvall, two recent veteran additions to the squad, have high ceilings and low floors.
Rafael Devers, Alex Verdugo, and Kiké Hernandez are the longest tenured Red Sox expected to be in the starting lineup on Opening Day, and Devers is the only one of the three that you know will produce big numbers if he stays healthy. So how do you arrange this chorus line of question marks?
Alex Cora has told Boston beat reporters that he expects Devers to hit second, Turner third, and Yoshida fourth on Opening Day. Then again, he said earlier this spring that he’d like to hit Devers somewhere other than the two hole. In other words, the lineup is far from set in stone.
Devers is clearly the fulcrum that the rest of the lineup must revolve around. When an old lineup nerd like me looks at this roster, the one immediate judgement I can make is that Rafael Devers should be hitting third. Of course, the new era of nerds, the ones buried deep in the analytics-sodden world of spreadsheets and algorithms, argue that the best hitter on the team should be hitting second.
In my opinion, this is stupid. I see it as a case of trying to reinvent the wheel in order to justify some analyst’s job. “I got a great idea! Let’s put the best hitter in the second spot in the order because he will get up to bat more often over the course of the season!”
Personally, I don’t think the objective is to get the best hitter up to the dish as much as you can. I think it’s a matter of getting the best hitter up to the dish as mush as you can with the greatest potential to drive in runs. The idea when hitting your biggest bat second is to have a leadoff guy who can reach base and be driven in by the number two hitter. But with the typically unproductive number eight and nine hitters preceding the leadoff man, the percentage of having multiple men on base for your best hitter is dramatically reduced.
On the other hand, batting your best hitter third in the order ideally gets him up after two guys who are good at getting on base, which should significantly improve the chances of having one or more ducks on the pond for your best slugger, with another power bat following him in the cleanup spot. Call it old fashioned, but this is my idea of the optimal way to organize the top of the order.
Another important consideration is left-right balance. The last thing you want to do is make the most productive part of your lineup susceptible to being dominated by an elite reliver who can continuously throw pitches that break away from the hitters, leaving them little chance to make solid contact. Back-to-back lefthanded hitters have little chance to square up a ball against Josh Hader or Andrew Chafin, whereas consecutive righties would likely be screwed facing Tanner Houck or Tyler Rogers. Strategically speaking, a manager is best served maintaining the right-left-right-left pattern as deep through the order as possible.
When considering my ideal Opening Day Red Sox lineup, Devers hitting third was the only layup. I found three potential leadoff hitters, three number twos, and four cleanup men. It’s an order teeming with question marks, yet rife with possibilities. Trevor Story’s injury in particular opens up a lot of room for creativity in the middle of the order, which doesn’t feel like a good thing. Not knowing who your power guys will be in late March accentuates how low this team’s offensive floor truly is. However, the presence of so many guys with the potential to get on base at staggering clips illustrates that the Red Sox could create a lot of traffic on the base paths and put some crooked numbers on the board even if they don’t hit a ton of balls into the seats.
Every Red Sox fan will has their own permutation of the Opening Day lineup they’d like to see. After considerable soul-searching and deliberation, here is mine.
Triston Casas 1B (L)
Justin Turner DH (R)
Rafael Devers 3B (L)
Adam Duvall CF (R)
Masataka Yoshida LF (L)
Kiké Hernandez SS (R)
Alex Verdugo RF (L)
Christian Arroyo 2B (R)
Reese McGuire C (L)
Notice that this lineup allows Cora to keep the lefty-righty balance in tact until the very bottom of the order, with McGuire and Casas the only consecutive batters to hit from the same side. Any dominant lefty or righty specialist relievers will have to face at least one credible threat from the opposite side before reaching the three batter minimum.
Casas is a rookie with only a month of MLB experience, but he’s been an on-base machine at every pro level, including this year during spring training, where he’s been excellent.
Turner has a career OBP of .350, giving Devers two table-setters that should give him ample doses of valuable RBI opportunities.
Duvall hitting cleanup is likely the biggest surprise here, but he really shouldn’t be. He had a poor offensive 2022, but he only played in 86 games before a wrist injury ended his season. In 2021, he hit 38 home runs and led the National League with 113 RBI. He hits for low average and strikes out a lot, but righthanded power hitters just love Fenway Park. He could do a serious damage in Boston, and I think he will be a pleasant surprise to Red Sox fans this season.
Yoshida, who is projected by RotoChamp to hit .298 with a .382 OBP and an .861 OPS, is expected to be the most prolific bat in the lineup after Devers. Putting him in the five hole keeps him in the heart of the order while breaking up the two lefty sluggers.
Hernandez is a another streaky hitter who can be comfortably slotted anywhere but the meat of the order. He’s too good to hit at the bottom of the lineup, but he’s not powerful enough to hit third through fifth. With Yoshida in the five spot and the lefthanded Verdugo hitting seventh, the sixth spot makes the most sense for the newly christened team leader.
In my estimation, this is a make-or-break year for Alex Verdugo. He’s never hit .300 in a real season, and he’s never topped 13 home runs. He’s a good contact hitter who gets on base and may benefit from MLB’s banning of the defensive shift, but he has never truly established himself as a productive hitter or slugger. If he wants to earn a long-term Red Sox contract, he needs to develop a standout hit tool this season. If he does not, I think Chaim Bloom will move on from him in the offseason.
Arroyo is an energy guy who can go on hot stretches and be a good contributor for a week or two at a time. He’s a decent threat to help lengthen the lineup, and he should be on a mission to stay healthy and contribute all season on the heels of his solid second half last year.
McGuire raised the bar Red Sox fans had for him by playing so well on both sides of the ball after coming over in the Jake Diekman deal at last year’s trade deadline. He will not hit .337 or rack up a .377 OBP this season the way he did in 98 at bats in 2022, but he should be a good defensive catcher who hits decently for a number nine hitter.
It ain’t the Blue Jays lineup, but it ain’t the Reds either. The Red Sox are a “Gold on the Ceiling” team who can score a lot of runs if all goes according to plan. Basically, if all the bad luck they endured in 2022 becomes good luck in 2023, this team will be sitting pretty all season long.
Alex Cora is a better manager than I, and his Opening Day lineup may in fact look drastically different from mine. But this is the order I feel has the most upside and leaves the least room for exploitation by opposing pitchers.
This is a new look Red Sox team. Get on board now, because the ride won’t stay open forever. Stay tuned to this website and the Bleacher Brawls podcast for more information on when I will be closing the bandwagon down.