All things considered, even though it hasn’t always seemed this way, the Red Sox are still in a good position with their offense. Most of the lineup on any given day can be at least a threat to do real damage every time he comes to the plate, and in Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez they have two legitimate star-caliber hitters who can carry the team on their backs on any given night. Even through all of the inconsistencies this lineup is still tied for third in wRC+ and is second in all of baseball in runs scored. That’s going to work.
That being said, it’s not a perfect lineup and there are still improvements that need to be made, whether it be tactical improvements from the coaching staff or simply the hitters being better than they are. Specifically, the bottom-third of the lineup has been a sinkhole pretty much all year, and it’s starting to become more and more noticeable as time goes on. Jackie Bradley Jr. has been in a miserable slump all year. Neither of the catchers have really done much of anything. Eduardo Núñez has been rough most of the season — though he did have himself a nice little night on Tuesday.
As a group, they are not giving the top of the lineup many chances to do damage with runners on base. The easiest fix here would be for this group to simply be better, but obviously that’s much easier said than done. The team can’t sit around forever and wait for that to happen. The more proactive solution would be to work Mitch Moreland into the lineup on a more regular basis, and it’s not too difficult to find a way to do that.
Moreland, as I’ve written about not too long ago, was not someone I was super high on coming into the year. I didn’t really buy the injury narrative from last season, or at least to the extent many did, but he’s gone a long way towards proving me wrong even in just a six-week stretch to start the season. The lefty has only gotten 81 plate appearances so it’s still a relatively small sample, but he’s hitting .347/.407/.653 for a 180 wRC+. He’s not that good — I really don’t think I’m going out on a limb saying that — but he’s clearly a better option than everyone in the bottom-third right now. It’s worth noting that he hasn’t played much against lefties so far this year, but Moreland has looked good in the chances he’s gotten. Given the relative lack of playing time so far, it’s fair to question whether or not Moreland’s success comes from being put in advantageous situations more often than not. However, the only real way to answer that is to keep pushing him further and further into the deep end and to give him a chance to prove he can do it more regularly.
In order to do this, someone else obviously needs to lose playing time. Bradley is the most obvious candidate here as he’s been among the worst hitters on the team all year, and you can’t take out the catchers’ bats to make room for Moreland. We talked about Bradley’s struggles over the weekend and how there is no easy answer to solving them. There’s no way that Bradley is this bad — if you think Bradley is a true-talent 45 wRC+ hitter we have wildly different views of the player — but he’s clearly a detriment to the lineup right now. The best Red Sox lineup involves Bradley being a contributor in some way, shape or form so he shouldn’t be sitting literally every day, but at this point he needs to be a part-time player until he proves he should be something else.
We’ve already seen how this works, too, and it’s not too difficult to manage for Cora. In most parks, we see Andrew Benintendi shift over to center field with Martinez moving from DH to left field, Hanley Ramirez moving from first base to DH and Moreland sliding in at first. In parks like Yankee Stadium where left field is a little more difficult than right, Martinez would play right with Betts shifting to center field. The team loses some outfield defense here to be sure, but A) Martinez has been better with the glove of late and B) the infield defense improves with a steadier glove at first. This is an extremely easy move to make on many nights, and I really wouldn’t be surprised if this is the alignment we see against Masahiro Tanaka on Wednesday.
Playing for Bradley is the easiest way to up Moreland’s playing time, but it’s not the only way. Ramirez has also been on a cold streak, though it’s not nearly as long or pronounced as that of Bradley. Still, since April 15 (Arbitrary End Points Alert!) the Red Sox number three hitter is slashing just .254/.333/.310 with four doubles and no home runs in 81 plate appearances. The power has dissipated rather startlingly, to say the least. Ramirez shouldn’t be sitting as often as Bradley as he’s shown much more life at the plate overall, but against tough righties it’s not a bad idea for him to get some days off and give Moreland some time at first base with the regular outfield alignment and Martinez at DH.
The baseball season is a long marathon with plenty of ebbs and flows throughout the year. We see cold streaks and hot streaks sprinkled throughout every season, and every year we overreact to them as they happen. One of the hardest parts of being a major-league manager is figuring out when to lean into these trends and when to stick to your plan and keep faith that things will even out. In this case, with Moreland trending up and Bradley trending down, I think you have to lean in. Moreland could very well cool off and/or Bradley could very well turn it on, but the latter may not happen without some days off to settle himself down. It’s too early in the season to panic about anything, but Alex Cora and the Red Sox need to give themselves the best chance to win night in and night out. Right now, that means having Moreland in the lineup on a semi-regular basis, mostly for Bradley but also at times for Ramirez.