The 2011 Red Sox are going to be an immensely talented team. When the only real complaints to be found are a weakness at catcher and the lack of closers in every spot in the pen and an ace in the fifth rotation spot, things are pretty good. Even the bench is incredible, with the Sox four-deep in the outfield, and five-deep from first to third.
Of course, you can only play three outfielders and four infielders (catcher excluded), and so we run into the question: how can this team be utilized best? And how much does it really matter?
For the most part, this is just rehashing the same old arguments: Lowrie over Scutaro, and platoons all over the place. But let's try and put some real figures on it this time. How much of a difference could making the right moves matter over the course of a season?
Lowrie vs. Scutaro
Let's start with the easy one here. The question of whether to play Jed Lowrie or Marco Scutaro at short should be an easy one, though it seems like the right answer is currently eluding the Red Sox. Last year, Lowrie showed a ridiculous amount of potential in his reasonably short (197 plate appearances) hitting for power (.239 isolated power), and showing some of the best discipline in the league (21.7% outside swing rate, 12.7% walk rate). In fact, the small difference separating his strikeout and walk rates was one of the best in the league.
Obviously, there are those who will say he's bound to regress, and they're probably right. But it's hard to imagine that he's going to drop to Scutaro's levels even in his best years. Consider that, before breaking his wrist, Lowrie had put up a .844 OPS in August as a rookie and managed a .934 OPS when using his unbroken right wrist. So let's go ahead and call him a .825 OPS or about a .360 wOBA hitter. Counting the "starting shortstop" position in for a conservative 600 plate appearances barring injury, that puts Jed on pace for 42.5 runs above a replacement player, ignoring defense.
A player at Scutaro's level, which we'll put slightly higher than his .319 from last year (credit for playing all year with an injury) should put the team down a good 16-or-so runs-the equivalent of more than one win. Of course, that's overstating the effect, since Jed Lowrie will definitely get playing time. Last year is a bit of an outlier when it comes to injury games, a super-sub who covers all the positions from first to third can still reasonably depend on 450+ plate appearances thanks to Terry Francona's conservative playing schedules and the distinct lack of invulnerable baseball players. That cuts down the difference to a mere 4 runs, assuming fairly similar defense.
Not exactly a big deal.
There are two main candidates for a platoon situation: David Ortiz, and J.D. Drew. While Carl Crawford struggles to hit lefties, his defense is a huge part of his contribution, and it's hard to see him sitting anyways.
While both players could make this a lot easier by suddenly hitting lefties again, let's assume for the sake of argument that they repeat their 2010 performance. For J.D. Drew, this means a .280 wOBA, and for David Ortiz, .268. Those are some awful numbers. Their potential replacements are Mike Cameron, with a .410 wOBA (based on his last full seasons) and Marco Scutaro (since we've already accounted for Lowrie) at .331, likely mixing up the infield so that Kevin Youkilis plays DH. Ideally, Youk would end up at first with Gonzalez at DH, but teams are always reluctant to risk the comfort and injury issues that tend to crop up with switching positions.
Last year, playing full seasons with some targeted rest against lefties, Ortiz and Drew still had to face lefties 200 and 172 times respectively. Doing the math, we come up with a rather more noticeable difference than the Lowrie/Scutaro situation: Not platooning Ortiz should cost the Sox around 11.6 runs. For Drew, the difference is still greater at a massive 20.1 run difference! It's not exactly surprising, though--this is the difference between batting Ryan Theriot for a quarter of a year and batting Albert Pujols! Even if we assume that a full third of these plate appearances are against targeted LOOGY relievers, it's just not a difference the Sox can put up with.
Of course, both Drew and Ortiz should be given the opportunity to prove they can still hit lefties. Maybe a few weeks at most. If things aren't looking any better after that, though, then at the very least Mike Cameron has to be facing every single lefty the Red Sox see this year. Tito can play Lowrie off the bench if he wants, so long as he gives the Red Sox the very necessary platoon!
For those interested, a guy like, say, Darnell McDonald playing over Carl Crawford would likely have a Lowrie - Scutaro size impact between offense and defense combined. Probably not worth testing Crawford's ego. A switch between Youkilis and Gonzalez defensively during those days Ortiz is platooned would also result in a very small change.
In fact, McDonald would make a better option to platoon with Ortiz than Marco Scutaro. Not if Scutaro starts and Lowrie is the one getting the substitution, however.