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The Red Sox roster puzzle is getting hard to put together

It seems like there’s no way to really win with the lineup these days.

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Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The last few days have been pretty much disastrous for the Red Sox, not so much in the standings — these losses certainly aren’t helping there, but it’s still only three losses at the end of the day — but more so in vibes, for lack of a better word. The vibes stink right now, and the losses are not just run-of-the-mill losses. They are gut punches, with sloppy defense running amok.

If you’re in search for some good news, however, you can look to the players starting to return. Boston has gotten three players back from the COVID list over the last two days, with Josh Taylor, Danny Santana, and Kiké Hernández all getting back on the roster against the Rays. Hernández in particular is a big piece to get back, as both his bat and glove have been missed during this stretch. Along with Hernández, Christian Arroyo and Xander Bogaerts shouldn’t be too far behind, and this lineup will look to be at full strength sooner than later.

But as we look ahead to try and project what this roster looks like at full health, things suddenly get a little murky. There are worse problems to have than not being able to find room for good players, because that usually means you just have too many good players. With the Red Sox, that’s not exactly the case. The issue for the Red Sox right now is that the strengths and weaknesses for their players don’t fit together very well, and it really leaves Alex Cora with an impossible situation every day in filling out the lineup card.

Let’s start with Kyle Schwarber, whose fit with this team was never really clear. Even when he was first acquired, we knew it was more of a let him hit and figure the rest out kind of deal. And this is not a criticism of that acquisition, because he has hit! Schwarber has inarguably been a net positive for this team; it’s just a matter of finding the way to get him in the lineup.

And that’s something of a difficult problem because there is also J.D. Martinez, who needs to be in the lineup. The Red Sox DH hasn’t been quite as consistently great at the plate in the second half as compared to the first, but he’s still clearly a bat you want in the lineup every day. But you also don’t want him in the outfield any more than you absolutely have to. If he’s playing there more than once a week (and even that feels like a bit much) something is not going right. Unfortunately, the same can be said about Schwarber.

Of course, when Schwarber was first acquired, the obvious way to make everything work was for him to learn first base. And he’s done that! Clearly there is still learning to be done and no one was expected a Gold Glover after having never played there as a pro, but he’s serviceable there. And on Tuesday, the Red Sox were able to keep both Martinez and Schwarber out of the outfield by putting the latter at first and the former at DH. But in turn, that left Bobby Dalbec out of the lineup.

As a power hitter with huge swing and miss, Dalbec does have the kind of profile that one would expect to run hot and cold. That can be frustrating at times, but when he’s hot it’s something you don’t want to limit. And right now, it’s hot. But with Schwarber at first, that obviously leaves Dalbec without a spot, and now you’re back potentially needing one of Martinez or Schwarber in the outfield. This is what we mean by no way to win.

If we’re talking about strictly optimizing the offense, right now the best alignment is probably as follows:

C: Christian Vázquez (if you want to argue Kevin Plawecki, that’s fine too)

1B: Bobby Dalbec

2B: Kiké Hernández

SS: Xander Bogaerts

3B: Rafael Devers

LF: Kyle Schwarber

CF: Alex Verdugo

RF: Hunter Renfroe

DH: J.D. Martinez

We have learned the hard way in recent days that we don’t only want to optimize for offense. The problem with this alignment is that you have Verdugo in center field, and we’ve seen that cost them a game recently. He just shouldn’t be playing there. The better option for the defense is to put Hernández in center field, which brings us right back to square one. At the end of the day, there doesn’t really seem to be a scenario in which one of Schwarber, Martinez, Dalbec, or Verdugo is sitting. And that’s far less than ideal.

Really, the only solution here is to get crazy and put Dalbec at second base. It’s not totally out of the box, as we’ve seen big infielders move to second base in recent years with teams starting to shift more and more. Travis Shaw, who is currently on Boston’s bench, did it, as did Mike Moustakas. That said, they weren’t thrust into that role in September, and it’s hard to imagine that would really solve any problems with this defense.

This post isn’t meant as a criticism to anyone, really. Like we said above, the Schwarber acquisition certainly caused some strange fit issues, but it’s also undoubtedly improved the offense. The trade has certainly been a net positive. Rather, this post is just an observation, and a source of frustration without a real direction. Alex Cora has his work cut out in this stretch run trying to balance all areas of the roster, because it doesn’t really feel like all the boxes can be checked by a single configuration at the moment.