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Touching All the Bases

What is the best lineup for the Red Sox?

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Before we get into the debate about the optimal lineup for the Red Sox at the moment -- meaning in the absence of Shane Victorino and Will Middlebrooks -- here's the necessary caveat:

There really isn't such a thing as an optimal lineup. Studies have shown that an "ideal" batting order generally produces between 5 to 15 runs more over the course of a season than one generated at random (meaning the way Bobby Valentine used to do it, I presume). The Red Sox could hit David Ortiz leadoff and Jonathan Herrera fifth, and it probably wouldn't cost them more than a win or two over the course of the full 162.

But that doesn't mean it's not fun to talk about. And it is a matter of interest for the 3-4 Red Sox at the moment. Arguably the best leadoff hitter in baseball, Jacoby Ellsbury, has departed for the Bronx, where they know what they have even if they haven't yet mastered spelling his name. (To be fair to all the would-be spelling-bee champions in the Bronx, Monday was about honoring their retiring shortstop, the great Derek Jeetur.) The Red Sox have mixed and matched to replace Ellsbury, sometimes unconventionally and without great results so far.

So even with the acknowledgment that the order doesn't matter hardly at all in the grand scheme of a season, here's how I think the lineup should look at the moment, against righthanded pitching:

1. Daniel Nava: The Red Sox had to be playing a prank on us this spring when they suggested he could fill in as a center fielder if need be. Defensively, Nava has improved, but only to the point that he's a poor man's Troy O'Leary in left field and a friend to potential triples everywhere else.

But that other idea, about using him as a leadoff hitter in Victorino's absence and after Ellsbury's departure? It's inspired.

For all of the ups and downs of Nava's unusual journey from the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League to becoming an important player on a World Series champion, he's always done one thing consistently well: he gets on base, especially against righthanded pitching.

His major league on-base percentage overall is .365, which is 14 points higher than Ellsbury's lifetime OBP. And Nava was 30 points higher last year, .385 to .355. And against righties, Nava is an on-base machine -- .386 career, .411 last year. No, of course he does not have Ellsbury's classic leadoff-hitter speed.

If anything, the slow start of the Sox' leadoff hitters has served as a reminder -- a necessary one to many -- that Ellsbury was a superb player here when he was healthy. But Nava has the skills and the history to achieve a leadoff hitter's No. 1 task: reach base.

Give him a longer chance. Faith in the guy has paid off before, right?

2. Dustin Pedroia: Know what's amazing? Most of us think as Pedroia as the quintessential top-notch No. 2 hitter. Yet he only hit in that spot once last year, in the 160th game of the season against the Orioles. Naturally, he had three hits.

In '13, he actually led off 11 times, came into a game late in No. 9 spot once, and otherwise was the No. 3 hitter for the champs, a spot he filled in 146 games. Given that he also has a .397/.442/.675 slash line over 139 plate appearances as a cleanup hitter in his career, it's apparent that he'll pretty much thrive from any spot in the order.

But the second spot is where he's appeared on the lineup card the most, and it's his best fit.

3. David Ortiz The most feared hitter in the lineup, and this assures him of a first-inning at bat. Pretty simple.

4. Mike Napoli He's probably more suited to be a No. 5 or 6 hitter because of his streakiness. But when he's hot like he was last September (.333/.494/.733) or even right now (.978 OPS through his first 32 plate appearances), he's the ultimate cleanup hitter.

5. Xander Bogaerts Brother (and/or sister), that percolating Bogaerts '14 vs. Jeter '96 column is becoming very tempting to write. Very tempting. I may not be able to resist much longer, what with a Yankees series coming up soon.

Bogaerts's defense at short has been spotty though hardly a significant problem. But the bat? It's ready to do some damage. Hat tip to John Farrell for moving him to the middle of the lineup earlier than we expected.

6. Grady Sizemore I know some want to see him hit leadoff, and that's certainly reasonable. In his previous life in Cleveland, he was a damned good on-base guy, totaling 199 walks in 2007-08, his last two healthy seasons. But his career OBP (.357) is actually lower than Nava's .365, and given Sizemore's power potential (he did hit 33 home runs in '07), I like him in the middle of the order, lengthening the lineup in the absence of Victorino and Middlebrooks.

One last thing that has nothing to do with the lineup: Please stop running headlong in to walls, sir. All of this holding our breath and exhaling only when you collect yourself and rise in one piece isn't healthy.

7. A.J. Pierzynski If you told me that in his 6,318 career at-bats he saw a total of 6,318 pitches, I might just believe you. He is a hacker's hacker. But 17 full or partial seasons into his career, it's not like this should come as a surprise.

He'll have his moments, like Monday night, when he chipped in with three hits. And as much as some of us liked Jarrod Saltalamacchia, he really was no more patient (.307 OBP with the Red Sox) than Pierzynski (.322 career OBP).

8. Jonathan Herrera Pretty sure I've called him Pedro Ciriaco with an accurate arm at one time or another this spring. After his throw into right field last night, I'm not so sure the accurate arm part is, you know, accurate. He's batting eighth rather than ninth in this lineup only because quality righty bat Ryan Roberts is likely to hit for him in this spot, splitting up a string of lefties.

9. Jackie Bradley Jr It's happening, isn't it? I mean, what I told you would happen -- the more you saw Bradley play, doing all the small things and a few big ones day after day, you'd come to appreciate him for what he is and what he will be: a valuable player on a winning team.

Right, even when you were telling me that it's now or never for this smart, talented hard-working kid who had 61 games of experience above Double A when he punched his way onto the club last spring, then, after faltering, went down to Triple A and had a better season than the year before.

(By you, I mostly mean my Boston Sports Live producer. Sorry to accuse you specifically. Fist bump?)

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