A fine line

With J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo now in the mix, Red Sox manager Terry Francona admitted yesterday he’s already been playing with the lineup for 2007. For some strange reason, we can’t imagine Jimy Williams ever doing the same in the first week of December.

Not that it should be taken as gospel this early on, particularly when Coco Crisp was absolutely, no questions asked, Boston’s leadoff hitter last summer, according to Francona. That is, until it turned out that 1) He wasn’t a very good leadoff hitter; and 2) Kevin Youkilis was. But it’s encouraging nonetheless for a skipper whose club was struggling in nearly every facet of the game last fall.

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Anyhow, Francona’s dream lineup goes something like this:
1. Julio Lugo, SS
2. Kevin Youkilis, 1B
3. David Ortiz, DH
4. Manny Ramirez, LF
5. J.D Drew, RF
6. Mike Lowell, 3B
7. Jason Varitek, C
8. Coco Crisp, CF
9. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
As much as we got repeatedly chastised yesterday in this space for being too “negative,” is this not at all concerning to anyone else? I’ve seen the words “uber” and “powerhouse” used to describe the Red Sox’ potential 1-9, which is teetering on the border between hopeful and ludicrous.
Even with the uncertainty surrounding Lugo and Drew, let’s start out by giving 1-5 solid marks. Lugo is, for all intents and purposes, a solid leadoff man, which allows on-base machine Youkilis set the table in the two hole. Ortiz and Ramirez are what they are, and Drew should provide a nice five-hole presence, one the Sox desperately missed last season.
Beyond that, the lineup is one still full of question. While Lowell was a surprise component last season, he hasn’t exactly been the picture of consistency in recent years. And what’s scarier is that he might be the most dependable of the players in the bottom half of that lineup.
The hope is that Varitek found the fountain of youth in the winter months, coming off a season in which he seemed to age faster than the Ameritrade kid. His .400 slugging percentage was just three points higher than that of Alex Gonzalez, a player that Sox fans came out in droves yesterday to remind me had an awful offensive season, one not worth his stellar defense. And yet the captain barely had a better on-base percentage, OPS, or runs batted in than Alex “last month we loved him, but now that he’s gone we’ll trash him” Gonzalez.
Crisp’s first season in Boston was most memorable for his diving catch against the Mets in June, his dad needing to join some lame membership to get tickets to watch him play, and … not much else. He played in just 105 games (Can Drew beat that?), and in that time truly failed to find a home at any spot in the lineup. Johnny Damon, he certainly was not. His awful .702 OPS was ranked among the bottom in the league among outfielders, and despite playing in nearly twice as many games, had only 11 RBIs more than Doug Mirabelli.
Crisp should be penciled into that eight-spot very lightly, as his names surfaces ever so quietly in trade talks involving the White Sox and the Rockies. A more unlikely scenario arises from North County Times columnist Shaun O’Neil: “The Red Sox are desperate for a closer. The Padres have a closer-in-waiting in Scott Linebrink. That’s a match, and Crisp would fit well as a corner outfielder in Petco. He’s a better player than he showed in his first year in the Boston pressure-cooker.”
If that were a possibility, Epstein would have already bought Crisp’s plane ticket. Still, it’s unlikely that’s all it would take to pry Linebrink from the Pads, although he’s been a target of the Red Sox for some time now so it might bear watching. And the new face of Red Sox Nation is …
A Crisp trade might open the door for Wily Mo Pena to finally break the lineup consistently playing in center, where he did prove to be much more dependable defensively, and thus shift the lineup back into another shuffle.
As for Pedroia, he didn’t exactly impress much offensively after his callup last season, managing to hit just .191 in 81 at-bats, but the Sox seem determined to award him the position and frankly, with a payroll soaring toward $150 million and luxury tax status, can’t really afford anyone else. The rookie will get his shot, but the front office will certainly make a Graffanino-type move if he struggles heading into June.
Pedroia, like the lineup on the whole, has potential, for sure. But can anyone truly sit here in December and proclaim the Red Sox the team to beat? A lot still hinges on Daisuke Matsuzaka and a closer before we can go ahead and make such bold statements. And if they don’t get Matsuzaka in the end, how will the signings of Drew and Lugo look for a team that still needs pitching?