The Red Sox, for all of their flaws (of which there are plenty), have a really solid core for their lineup. In Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez, Alex Verdugo, and Christian Vázquez, they have more than half of their lineup written in with pen with expectations that they should be safely better than average at the plate relative to their positions. That’s also four spots — we’ll take Verdugo out of the conversation at this point — where they have a player penned in at a specific position on nearly a daily basis. There will be days off and minor tweaks, of course, but generally speaking Bogaerts and Devers will man the left side of the infield, Vázquez will be behind the plate, and Martinez will be the team’s DH. This fivesome (including Verdugo again) is likely to be the most exciting part of the 2021 Red Sox.
If, however, you are interested in the day-to-day mechanisms of managing and putting together lineups, you actually be more excited about the rest of the lineup. This isn’t because they are particularly exciting as players — your mileage may vary on them individually, but this isn’t really about that — but rather because beyond the four position stalwarts mentioned above, everyone can move around. Enrique Hernández and Marwin Gonzalez are the obvious examples of versatility, but they can also move all around in the outfield, and just generally this team has a chance at running out different lineup and defensive alignments on seemingly a daily basis.
This is something that I’ve been thinking about basically since the Gonzalez signing was reported, but I’ve struggled to articulate how many different alignments are possible. So, during Sunday’s spring opener with little else to do and the game only on the radio, I decided to just list out all of the combinations possible. I won’t make you go cross-eyed by writing them all out in this space, but you can check out what I thought of here. This was just off the top of my head, for what it’s worth, so it’s entirely possible I forgot one or two. But I was able to come up with 18 different defensive alignments that could realistically be used. Some are park dependent — Verdugo in left with Gonzalez in right, for example, makes sense only in a place like Yankee Stadium with a big left field and small right — but others can be universal.
There are a couple of important things to remember here as well. First, this is only including players who are projected to make the active roster on Opening Day if everyone is healthy. So there is no Michael Chavis in the mix, who can play either infield corner, second base and left field. There is no Yairo Muñoz, who can play just about everywhere. There is no Jarren Duran, who can cover all three outfield spots. There’s also the four positional stalwarts mentioned at the top in every combination, so we don’t include the days off they’ll get, or the days where Martinez steps into left field and allows Devers or Bogaerts to get a half day off by serving as the DH. When you throw in all of the different scenarios, you probably don’t quite get 162 different combinations, but I’d suspect you get startlingly close.
Part of this is cool to me just because, well, it’s kind of neat. As someone who sometimes likes to play OOTP on manager-only mode, I can nerd out on lineup configuration and defensive alignment with the best of them. But it’s also a deliberate choice made by the Red Sox, who publicly emphasized versatility all winter. Chaim Bloom targeted players who could go everywhere, and Alex Cora was 100 percent on board with the strategy. There’s plenty of reasons why they would want to go down this road, too.
With all of these possibilities at the fingertips of the manager, the Red Sox are now much more able to tailor their lineups to the opposing pitcher, not only running out multi-layered platoons but also potentially being able to guard against things like a fastball-heavy pitcher versus, say, a slider-heavy one and putting in the best hitters for each style. They can also tailor to their own pitcher, stacking the outfield with better gloves when a fly ball pitcher is starting and then stacking the infield when a ground baller takes the mound.
This also gives Cora a chance to make sure everyone on his bench if getting even just semi-consistent playing time. Boston is expected to run with a three-man bench at least to start the season, so it shouldn’t be as challenging to get everyone in the game. But it’s still something to shoot for. Baseball, and particularly hitting, is all about timing, so players not getting in often turns into a viscous cycle. They aren’t playing, so their timing suffers, so they struggle when they get their sporadic playing time, so they don’t play because they’re struggling, and on and on it goes. By being able to shuffle everyone around and give the non-stars consistent playing time, that cycle can theoretically be avoided.
And then there’s the idea of playing the hot hand, which is really more about feel than anything else. This is one of Cora’s biggest strengths, though, and he can make sure a hot bat stays in the lineup without shunning another player completely. Say, for example, Gonzalez goes on a tear. He can play every day, but that won’t necessarily mean, say, Bobby Dalbec is on the bench for that whole streak because Gonzalez can play all week with only one or two games at first base. And that obviously goes for other spots, too.
And finally, this opens up a lot of possibilities for late-game situations, as well. The obvious downside of all of this is that the Red Sox don’t have good enough players to pen into the lineup on a daily basis, which means there will be spots late in games where they don’t have a hitter with whom they are comfortable in a big spot, or a runner they don’t want out there on first base in the ninth. Having all of this versatility on hand makes it a lot easier to make sure you get the matchup at the plate you want, or the runner on first you’re looking for, and being confident you can make the defensive alignment work for the rest of the game as well. That’s a situation that may only come up a handful of times through the season, but for a team with a thin margin of error like the Red Sox, it can make a big difference in their final standing.
As I said, this isn’t really an ideal situation, per se. Ideally you’d have an All-Star at every position and you wouldn’t have to move anyone around. But if that’s not the case — and it’s pretty hard to make that the case — this is the next best thing. Cora asked for this for a reason, and now this is a major opportunity to show off his chops.