Last week, I touched on John Farrell’s statements regarding Shane Victorino being his starting right fielder. Manager statements at this time of the year need to be taken with a grain of salt, but there is typically at least some bit of truth to them and there’s not much else going on at this point. In that same vein, we go back earlier in the offseason when Farrell mentioned Mookie Betts as the team’s best option to bat leadoff. On the surface, that makes sense. Betts has shown a clear ability to get on base during his professional career, and the top of the lineup is a better fit for his relative lack of power.
It’s not all good though. The main issue is that it’s not clear at this time what Betts’ role on the roster will be. If everyone is healthy and they only move one outfielder, it’s a safe assumption that some sort of rotation will be used and the 22-year-old won’t play every day. Part of the reason people are worried about him playing a smaller role is the perception that he’s the only leadoff option. Is that true, or are there other guys who can man that spot?
It only seems right to start this list off with the man who could very well be the one to take most of Betts’ playing time. It’s hard to gauge exactly where Victorino’s offense is after missing the vast majority of 2014, but if he can get back to something near his 2013 play, he’s a fine leadoff option. Although it’s not the most important thing for the top of the lineup, his speed is an asset here. Having someone on base who can take attention from the pitcher with the biggest bats at the plate can only be a good thing. Of course, he has to get on base for that to work. His walk-rate has fallen since joining the Red Sox, but he’s still managed to put up league-average OBPs, including an above-average .351 mark two years ago. On top of that, he’s managed to see more pitches than the average batter over the last few seasons. That skill is hugely important to set the tone. Even if his walk-rate doesn't come up, he’s a perfectly adequate leadoff man, though not exactly ideal.
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The other member of the theoretical outfield rotation is Castillo, and he’s another name surely to be brought up in leadoff discussions. The Red Sox clearly have faith in his bat given their $72.5 million investment. With that being said, the top spot in the lineup should not be in consideration at the moment. For one thing, he has very little MLB experience - even less than Betts - and could very well have a long adjustment period. Putting the added pressure of setting the table for a potent lineup is unnecessary. Even beyond that, his game isn’t exactly conducive to the role. While describing him as a "free-swinger" is probably too harsh, it’s fair to say he’s an aggressive hitter. He’s going to jump on pitches early in the count often. There’s no problem with that style of hitting, but it’s much better served in the middle or back of the lineup than at the top.
Bogaerts is probably the most interesting case on this list for me. The young shortstop possesses many of the tools that could make a great leadoff man, but doesn’t necessarily fit the prototypical mold. He’s not overly fast (contrary to some statements made by Tim McCarver back in the 2013 postseason), and his frame suggests more of a middle-of-the-lineup presence. However, he’s shown great patience throughout his time in the Red Sox’ system, resulting in both high OBPs and many pitches seen. Of course, that didn’t all come together in 2014, and the final numbers were underwhelming. We’ve seen some flashes of what he can be, including that 2013 playoff run as well as a few times last season, but he hasn’t done it on a consistent basis yet. The smart move would be to let him get settled into the season at the bottom of the lineup and get that confidence back. If he performs well for the first couple of months and no other leadoff candidate as stepped up, upping the pressure by sticking him in the leadoff move would be the way to go.
While Bogaerts is the most interesting option, Pedroia is the best. For all of the talk of his declining offense, he’s continued to get on base. Unfortunately, the second baseman manning the leadoff spot appears unlikely. He has expressed a preference to stay in the second spot, and by all indications Farrell will appease those preferences. If he’s truly more comfortable there than anywhere else in the lineup, the manager is smart to keep him there. A more comfortable hitter is going to produce more. If he’s willing to move up a spot, though, that would give the offense the best chance to maximize its production. A unit with Pedroia followed by Hanley Ramirez, David Ortiz, Mike Napoli and Pablo Sandoval could do serious damage. It may be something of a pipe dream, but if Betts isn’t in the leadoff spot, this is the best option.
Bogaerts is the most interesting, Pedroia is the best, but Holt is my favorite. All of the terribleness of 2014 was almost wiped away by being able to watch Holt do his thing every day last summer. He was a revelation, and he’s actually been mentioned by name in Farrell’s list of leadoff options. Unfortunately, while he’s the most fun option, he’s also the worst. For one thing, he doesn’t have anything close to a clear path to playing time. Even if he did, there’s a small chance he can repeat last year’s performance, as sad as it may be.
When I started this, I was expecting to dispel the myth that Betts is far and away the best leadoff option. It’s just lofty expectations to throw on a 22-year-old with 213 MLB plate appearances under his belt. But if they’s unwilling to move Pedroia up a spot, he’s the best option. Does that mean the offense is going to be decidedly worse without Betts playing? Of course not. Victorino and Holt both represent fine options, and Bogaerts could become the best option later in the year. On top of that, lineup construction is far from the be all end all for production. Still, it does add a bit of credence to the idea that Betts deserves a significant role on the 2015 team.