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Lineup has been on shuffle play

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  April 30, 2010 11:04 AM

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What we have here, at least at the moment, is a game of musical chairs. Martinez and Ortiz one night. Varitek and Lowell the next. Then Martinez and Lowell. Then Martinez and Varitek. Then Varitek and Ortiz.

For those of you who always believed you could be the manager of the Red Sox, here’s an obvious question:

Think you can do this job now?

The Red Sox have won three straight and seven of nine entering this weekend’s series against the wretched Baltimore Orioles, but don’t be deceived. Some of the problems that have dogged this team through the early part of the season are still there, partly as the result of injury, partly as the result of age and deterioration. Take a good look at the Red Sox’ current roster of positional players and you find that a majority of them (seven of the 13) are now regarded by the team as part-time players.

David Ortiz. Jason Varitek. Mike Lowell. Darnell McDonald. Jonathan Van Every. Bill Hall. Jeremy Hermida. For one reason or another – age, defense, an inability to hit lefties, an inability to hit righties – the Red Sox are not comfortable putting any of those seven on the field for full-time duty, which speaks volumes about the current roster.

And while that will change significantly whenever both Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron return to the lineup, the Sox still must decide what they intend to do at catcher and designated hitter before truly stabilizing.

For manager Terry Francona, in particular, there is a lot to consider these days, and none of it concerns the past accomplishments of Varitek, Lowell or Ortiz, all of whom have been relegated to part-time status. Rather, how does he best utilize the now limited talents of an aging corps? If you are among those who feel the Sox are in for a grueling year – and again, it’s early – your greatest argument is that the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays simply do not seem to have questions like this.

For Francona, keeping players happy is one thing. Putting them in a position to succeed is quite another. The question for this group now concerns the latter, raising an array of questions as the Red Sox move forward. To wit:

  • Does Varitek need to catch more than anyone would like, strictly for the stability he provides behind the plate? The Sox are 5-2 this season when Varitek starts at catcher, 6-9 when Martinez starts. Maybe that means nothing. And yet, the two worst Sox seasons since the start of the 1998 campaign came in 2001 and 2006, which both just happened to be years in which Varitek was injured and someone else was behind the plate.

    In 2001, the Sox were in first place, 10 games over .500, when Varitek broke his elbow and was lost for the year. They finished 82-79. In 2006, the Sox were again in first when Varitek suffered a knee injury at the end of July, then crumbled in August and September to finish at 86-76.

    Over the years, we’ve said it countless times: just for what he gives the Sox in terms of stability behind the plate, Varitek may have been the most indispensable player on the team during those years. Is he still?

    Nobody is suggesting that Varitek alone is reason for the team’s success. He isn’t. But the Sox look like a much better team when Varitek is catching, which would be if the Sox could assume good production from him offensively. They can’t. And if Varitek catches more, that means that Martinez is relegated to designated hitter, which means that both Lowell and Ortiz would sit.
    How many bats can a team take out of the lineup before the cost becomes too great?

  • Does Ortiz need to play less, even against righthanders? This weekend should tell us a great deal about the one-time cornerstone of the Boston lineup given that the Orioles are throwing a succession of righties against the Red Sox. For all of the talk about the need to platoon Ortiz and Lowell, Ortiz actually is batting worse against righthanders (.146) than he is against lefthanders (.182), though he has had more power against righties.

    We all know the score here. Ortiz is a true DH. If he can’t hit lefties or righties, there is really no point in carrying him on the roster - he’s not a plus defender and no one would use him as a pinch-runner. Still, Ortiz hit .281 with a .946 OPS against righthanders after May last season, suggesting there’s a reasonable chance the Sox can get more from him. As the year progresses. But how can anyone expect improvement if Ortiz doesn’t get at-bats?

  • Why does Lowell keep getting squeezed out? OK, so it seems the Sox have decided to use Lowell against lefties. We get it. But so far this year, Lowell is actually batting .313 with a .764 OPS against right-handed pitching. Against righthanders last year, Lowell hit a respectable .285 with a .784 OPS. At the moment, he looks to be a better option than Ortiz against both lefthanders and righthanders, which is probably what Lowell himself believes.

    But if Lowell is the full-time DH, then Victor Martinez must catch a large majority of the time. Based on what we’ve seen so far, that hardly seems like a good way to go. Aside from Varitek’s defensive abilities – and we’re talking about receiving and game-calling, not throwing – the surest thing the Red Sox have in this revolving foursome at the moment is Martinez’s ability to hit. He has to be in the lineup somewhere.

    If you’re confused by all of this, you should be. At the moment, these are the decisions Francona is facing on a nightly basis, before the game even starts. As such, there is great instability in the lineup. The manager is being forced to make educated guesses – but guesses nonetheless – on what matchups and skills will best serve the Red Sox on any given night, which is a difficult way for any skipper – and any team – to successfully negotiate an entire season.

    Nine years ago, as the Red Sox slunk their way through a disappointing 2001 season, there was great instability in the lineup. Players openly complained about manager Jimy Williams’s unwillingness to settle on a regular lineup, the manager instead opting to play matchups. Williams supporters at the time argued that Williams was forced to platoon players because the Sox didn’t have enough complete players on their roster, which led to instability on the field and in the clubhouse.

    Now, several years later, the Red Sox find themselves in a similar predicament with too many moving parts.

    Round and round they go. Where it stops, nobody knows.

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    About Mazz

    Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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