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Let’s build the 2017 Red Sox lineups!

Playing John Farrell for a day

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

For all intents and purposes, the 2017 Red Sox are a finished product. There might be a subtraction in the rotation, but any other additions will be minor, and likely far from guaranteed to make the roster. That means we can now turn our attention away from who should play next year, and towards how they should be used.

Of the nine players likely to start for the Red Sox, the following are pretty much locks to be everyday players, at least to start the season:

Dustin Pedroia

Xander Bogaerts

Mookie Betts

Hanley Ramirez

Pablo Sandoval

It’s a list which seems pretty odd at first glance, including Pablo Sandoval but excluding the likes of Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr. The explanation there is fairly simple, though. The Red Sox don’t really have anyone to replace Sandoval at third base. As a lefty, Brock Holt doesn’t really fit in a natural platoon with Sandoval, leaving Josh Rutledge as the guy most likely to push Sandoval into a part-time role unless his own poor performance takes him completely out of the picture.

As for Benintendi and Bradley, there’s some question how the Red Sox will end up using the two against lefties. Bradley’s career splits are significant if not too big to make the Red Sox platoon him, particularly with his glove. Andrew Benintendi’s have been, but they’re in such a small sample size (and coming during his debut seasons) that the Sox should probably just stick with them both in the outfield, let Chris Young DH, and move Hanley to first against lefties. But it’s not quite as obvious as Betts, Bogaerts, and Pedey playing everyday.

Then there’s the catching corps. Sandy Leon is the starter after his big 2016 season, but I don’t think the Red Sox are going to completely relegate Christian Vazquez to a once-through-the-rotation backup role right off the bat. Information is pretty important for the Red Sox behind the plate given Swihart’s presence in the minors, so they’ll probably err on the side of figuring things out there.

Alright, so that’s the setup. Now let’s try and figure out an order.

Against right-handed pitchers

The names here are pretty easy. Take your four locks, add Benintendi and Bradley back in, Mitch Moreland at first, and then toss in the catch(er)-of-the-day. So let’s get to the order.

It’s probably safe to start with Dustin Pedroia in the leadoff spot after he established his willingness to play the part last year. While Pedroia has always been better against opposite-handed pitching, he still holds a career .357 OBP against them, and had an even better mark in 2016.

Things quickly get interesting after Pedroia. Advanced analysis would tell us that the second and fourth spots in the order should be where you play your absolute best hitters, but realistically John Farrell will be drawing up a more traditional lineup where the best bats start one spot later. Personally, I would love to see the Red Sox be aggressive with Andrew Benintendi here after what he did in 2016. He avoids leadoff pressure and the marquee role that might rankle the feathers of certain more established players while still finding his way into an important spot in the lineup.

I expect few will be surprised with Mookie Betts slotting into one of these next two spots. He certainly wasn’t going to hit fifth or later. What might be more controversial is that I have him paired with Jackie Bradley Jr. here, pushing both Hanley Ramirez and Xander Bogaerts out of this central part of the lineup. You can order them however you like, but Bradley and Betts are probably Boston’s two best bats against right-handed pitchers.

For Bradley, it’s a little hard to figure out exactly how his splits will play out long-term. His career numbers, of course, aren’t great—he hits righties to a .745 OPS and manages only a .681 against lefties. But it’s hard to give much credit to the Bradley of 2013-2014 now that he’s hit to an .834 OPS over the course of 891 plate appearances between 2015 and 2016. Still, taking just these last two years, Bradley’s 127 wRC+ against right-handed pitching is second only to that of Betts and Ortiz among Red Sox with 500 plate appearances, and a significant step ahead of the fourth-place Dustin Pedroia. Whether he’s a really good hitter, or just a really good hitter against righties remains to be seen. But at least for now Bradley should probably be accorded a key spot in the lineup against right-handed pitching. You can go in any order you want, but I think I’d put Betts ahead of Bradley for his contact rate. It’s pretty easy, after all, to imagine Pedroia doubling, Benintendi moving him to third, and the Sox looking for just a fly ball to bring him in.

After that is where we put the guys hurt by their splits in Hanley Ramirez and Xander Bogaerts. Hanley probably goes first just because it’s a little tough to justify having him hit anywhere lower than fifth after 2016. Bogaerts comes in sixth, which is a low mark for a guy whose bat has still been above league average even against righties. It’s just hard to find a place to justify putting him ahead of guys like Bradley and Betts, who have done huge damage to right-handed pitching these past couple of years.

Seventh is where Mitch Moreland finally makes his mark. Any regular readers will know I’m not hugely enthusiastic about him at first, but there’s no question he can be a decent bat against righties. Pablo Sandoval comes in eighth, but will have plenty of opportunity to prove he can hit righties like he used to and move up. Finally, ninth is the catcher, because even Sandy Leon wasn’t particularly great against righties last year.

To sum up:

  1. Dustin Pedroia
  2. Andrew Benintendi
  3. Mookie Betts
  4. Jackie Bradley Jr.
  5. Hanley Ramirez
  6. Xander Bogaerts
  7. Mitch Moreland
  8. Pablo Sandoval
  9. Sandy Leon/Christian Vazquez

Against left-handed pitching

The “who” is a bit more difficult here given the Chris Young situation. Young and Ramirez should be playing pretty much every single game against southpaws, but the outfield scenario makes things a bit trickier. If Bradley’s splits look like they did in 2016 rather than just an improved version of his career marks, then the Sox might start taking him out and moving Benintendi to center against lefties. If Benintendi can’t improve on his 2016 mark then he might be the odd man out every fifth game.

To start, though, I think the Sox stick with both their outfielders and just move Hanley to first for Mitch Moreland, who is not at all good against lefties. Chris Young takes over at DH for the day, and that’s that.

So let’s get to the order. Again, Dustin Pedroia is first. There’s probably not that much to be said for stability improving performance on a day-to-day basis, but it can’t hurt to have him locked in, and there’s no reason to move him against lefties, so Dustin Pedroia it is.

Even if the Red Sox have the faith to bat Andrew Benintendi second against righties (and there’s currently no guarantee on that!), it’s hard to imagine they’ll keep him there against lefties, at least to start. That leaves that opening for Xander Bogaerts to jump up into more prestigious territory. Really he’s been so good against lefties that this move works both for the traditional approach of having a strong all-around bat second, and the analytical approach which would ask for one of the team’s best hitters. It’s win-win.

Third is again Mookie Betts. He’s actually probably not the best choice here just because there are so many exceptional hitters against lefties in this lineup, but it’s again hard to object to having the MVP candidate bat third under pretty much any circumstances.

Fourth is Hanley Ramriez, who is one of the most dangerous hitters left in the lineup against lefties. He should be able to do a damn fine David Ortiz impression here and force pitchers to give Mookie Betts something to hit even in 2-out scenarios.

Fifth is where we give Chris Young his due. He has a .846 OPS against lefties over nearly 1500 plate appearances in his career, and last year looked to actually be taking a pretty big step forward even at 33 years old. In two years that have been marked by big trades and signings, Young might be the smartest move Dave Dombrowski has made, investing a relatively small amount over a short period on a player who fits the team’s needs perfectly and can perform like a star when he’s in the lineup. These are the matchups they got him for, so putting him fifth is the least they can do, and there’s a real argument he should be higher, perhaps even swapping places with Mookie.

Unfortunately, this is kind of where this lineup gets tricky for the Red Sox. After Young, the Red Sox have Benintendi, Bradley, Sandoval, and the catcher to fit in. None of them are really reliable bats against southpaws just yet.

I think you start by giving Bradley the benefit of the doubt and having him bat sixth. His career splits against lefties are bad. His 2016 splits against lefties are bad. But single-year splits for a player are usually not all that telling, and with Bradley, as mentioned earlier, it’s less 2013-2016 you should be interested in than 2015-2016, as this is clearly a different Bradley we have now. That span gives us an almost league average bat against lefties, which is kind of what you’d expect from him adjusting his career splits to this new level he’s playing at now. It’s not a brilliant mark, but it’s solid, and the other options aren’t necessarily great, either.

If we’re going to give Bradley the benefit of the doubt, then Benintendi should probably be the next to receive it. He was horrific against lefties last year, but it came in such a small sample size as to mean nothing. It’s entirely feasible his development will lag behind against southpaws. Benintendi probably has the most mobility in either direction here—he could end up batting in the top-3 or he could be sitting out a number of games to enable Josh Rutledge to play. For now, we’ll go seventh out of deference to his overall performance in 2016.

Third to receive it: Sandy Leon, who will probably be getting most of these starts. On the one hand, it seems crazy to put him this low against lefties after putting up a four-digit OPS against lefties last year. On the other hand, his wRC+ against them dating back to 2014 is a below league average 98, and he was riding a BABIP over .400 last year. We’re all hoping 2016 will prove to be a breakout rather than a fluke, but it’s reasonable to ask him to prove it first given the extremely low expectations for him before he did what he did last year.

Then in ninth...Pablo Sandoval. Oi. Even his career numbers against lefties aren’t good, much less his 2015 numbers. Don’t look. You don’t want to see. Honestly, if Josh Rutledge makes the roster, these starts might belong to him. This is the big black hole on the 2017 Red Sox, even if Sandoval bounces back. But no team is perfect.

So to recap:

  1. Dustin Pedroia
  2. Xander Bogaerts
  3. Mookie Betts
  4. Hanley Ramirez
  5. Chris Young
  6. Jackie Bradley Jr.
  7. Andrew Benintendi
  8. Sandy Leon
  9. Pablo Sandoval