Predicting the 2021 Red Sox Opening Day Lineup

It’s officially March; for spring training enthusiasts, that’s code for time to overanalyze every pitch. For some, it’s a queue to scrutinize control issues for every pitcher on the roster. For others, it’s deciding newcomers’ roles on the roster due to one exhibition game. Or maybe it’s time to question every lineup and decision to have a certain certified designated hitter play the outfield. However, some of you are normal and realize that Fort Myers is about growth, team-building, and experimentation to help determine individual identities.

(Photo: AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Indeed, the Red Sox have been early contenders for "Most Electric Offense in Baseball" and have taken the Grapefruit League by storm, hitting at a .302/.395/.559 slash line as a team. Their .954 OPS is tops among all 30 teams and their 11 home runs are second to only the Kansas City Royals. Clearly, fans are yet to see any sort of final product with this offense but we attempt to deduce just that today.

Amidst the disaster that was the transitioning Red Sox in 2020, we witnessed a plethora of lineups from interim manager Ron Roenicke. There was still offensive talent in Boston despite underwhelming seasons from Andrew Benintendi and J.D. Martinez and the reeling Sox still managed to score the fifth-most runs in the American League. In August, I suggested fixed lineup in attempts to find a starting 9 that could improve the consistency of run production and inspire younger players to succeed and keep their heads up. Instead, we got a set of names every night that many would think were simply drawn randomly out of a hat.

With three weeks to go before the Red Sox open their season against the Orioles, it's clear Alex Cora has plenty of lineup combinations at his disposal. Here’s my prediction on the lineup that southpaw Orioles ace John Means will see from the Red Sox.

Leadoff: CF Alex Verdugo

Over the past few years, many have been frustrated with the experiments at the leadoff spot when Mookie Betts wasn’t in the lineup. In 2020, the Red Sox had an entire season to find a solution to replace one of the game’s great leadoff hitters and still did not seem to come up with a definitive answer. I’m sticking to my narrative that the man for the job should be the big league centerpiece of the Betts blockbuster.

In 2020, Verdugo was arguably the Red Sox MVP and even finished 12th in AL MVP voting on the back of a .308/.367/.478 slash and seven outfield assists (tied for the MLB lead). Moreover, in his career, Verdugo has hit at a .289/.344/.416 slash line at the leadoff spot. In his career, he actually boasts reverse-splits as a left-handed contact hitter, hitting at a .312/.350/.437 slash against left-handed pitchers but possessing a more power-centric .281/.342/.467 slash against right-handed pitchers.

The message is clear — Verdugo deserves everyday playing time and his offensive profile means he should be the permanent leadoff hitter. There isn’t sufficient evidence to believe Verdugo needs to be part of a platoon; rather, the 24-year-old should be an automatic write-in for the lineup on any day that’s not designated for scheduled rest or injury management.

#2: 3B Rafael Devers

In his age-22 season in 2019, Devers' 54 doubles led the American League, his 359 total bases led the majors, and he finished 12th in AL MVP voting. In that season, he spent 46% of his at-bats at the 2 spot. Fast-forward to the peculiar 2020 season and Devers' 55 starts were all batting either second or third. In his 42 starts at the 2 spot, he hit at a mediocre .254/.302/.492 slash but in his 13 starts at the 3 spot, that improved to .294/.345/.471.

Instead of falling prey to recency bias, Alex Cora should chalk up the overall results to sample size and instead look to solve Devers’ recent struggles by getting him to see more pitches instead of throwing him into the fire of hitting with pressure to drive in runs early. Protect his volatile bat with the big-boy hitters and get Devers in a mental rhythm early on. As explained above, Verdguo’s splits don’t suggest that a left-handed pitcher facing Verdugo and Devers back-to-back would cause serious issues despite the consecutive lefty at-bats.

#3: SS Xander Bogaerts

Every year, the Red Sox offense seems to have some massive bright spots. Last year was no different; despite the fluid lineups and inconsistent clutch hitting, Xander Bogaerts served as the unofficial captain of the team not just in the clubhouse but also at the plate. Bogaerts has firmly moved into the discussion for the best offensive shortstop in baseball. Despite the slight downgrade from 2019 in overall statistics, he still hit 11 home runs with a .300/.364/.867 slash line and for the third straight season, Bogaerts received MVP votes.

The elite hitter that he is, Bogaerts should be what this lineup is centered around. He should be in a position to drive in runs every time he steps to the plate. Maximize the potential of this lineup by protecting Bogaerts with another premium bat and see if he can repeat his 2019 where he hit at a .322/.379/.606 slash with 20 home runs and 70 runs batted in as the #3 hitter.

Cleanup: DH J.D. Martinez

Seeing J.D. Martinez in the field is just about the last thing a baseball fan would turn on the TV to see. He’ll only be there on extremely special occasions and if so, he’ll likely try to manage the vicinity of the Green Monster in left field. That’s not what we care about here. It’s the elite ability to hit against all types of pitching for an entire season — to drive in runs by hitting to ball to about every part of the field and over the fence. From last year’s lineup review:
In the 2018 championship run when Martinez became the first player in MLB history to win two Silver Slugger awards in the same season, Martinez split time in the 3 spot and the cleanup role. He hit .317 with a .973 OPS in the 3 spot. In the cleanup role, he was an unearthly .344 hitter with a 1.088 OPS. Just leave him there, give him baserunners to work with.
One of the biggest video replay students in the game, J.D. Martinez has repeatedly expressed his dismay about the lack of opportunities to utilize video during games in 2020. Martinez was not alone among superstars to struggle at the plate in the short season and he finished the trainwreck of a year hitting at a .213/.291/.389 slash with 7 home runs. His .680 OPS was his lowest in a season since 2013, his final year with the Houston Astros before he was released.

To think that Martinez is officially witnessing his demise as a hitter and cannot bounce back would be naive. With video resources back in 2021 and an offseason to reset his mind with a better team behind him, Martinez should still be considered the most dangerous power hitter in the Red Sox lineup. He’ll be hitting cleanup for the Red Sox on Opening Day and ready to drive in some runs.

#5: 1B Bobby Dalbec

In Dalbec's first exposure to the big leagues in 2020, he hit 8 home runs in just 80 at bats. Against left-handed pitchers, his offensive numbers were particularly impressive, slashing .296/.321/.741 with 3 home runs in 27 at bats. Still eligible as a rookie, the #3 prospect in the Red Sox system should be viewed as a front-runner for Rookie of the Year, especially after the pace he has set so far in Spring Training. While the Red Sox made a flurry of moves in the offseason for players that can slot in at first base from time to time, their lack of a move for an everyday veteran first baseman serves as a vote of confidence for the ability of Dalbec, still just 25 years old.

#6: C Christian Vázquez

Now the longest-tenured member of the organization, Vázquez spent his age-29 season being one of the most reliable players on the roster in 2020. While he improved his defensive statistically to become one of the best arms and framers behind the plate, it was his offensive prowess that took another noticeable step forward. He finished the season with a career-best .801 OPS and hit 7 home runs. Those numbers were even better in clutch situations as he hit at a 1.328 OPS with 2 outs and runners in scoring position.

Vázquez also has plenty of experience hitting higher in the batting order if need be; with the added depth of power-hitting posted by the top of Boston’s order, it makes sense to use Vázquez’s bat to transition into the bottom of the order as a potential mass run producer.

#7: RF Hunter Renfroe

While it’s still unclear what Alex Cora envisions the corner outfield spots to look like over the course of the full season, Opening Day shouldn’t be as tough of a decision. Facing a left-handed pitcher, the power bat of Renfroe should be the clear choice over the left-handed at bat of Franchy Cordero, who currently remains out of Spring Training anyway, and the less reliable defense of Marwin González in the spacious Fenway Park right field.

As an outfielder, Renfroe’s larger frame can be misleading. With solid range (89th percentile in outs above average in 2019) and a cannon of an arm (top 3 in rARM in 2019), the combination of Renfroe and Verdugo can certainly get the job done defensively on an everyday basis.

As a hitter, Renfroe has been streaky at times but his career .912 OPS against left-handed pitchers makes him an auto-start for the Red Sox against southpaws like Means. When he’s hot, expect to see him hit near the top of the order on one of the stars’ off days.

#8: 2B Enrique Hernández

Despite the disheartening end to Dustin Pedroia’s career, the Red Sox have some options at second base to begin the season. While #2 Red Sox prospect Jeter Downs could see some playing time at that spot as early as this season, he isn’t ready to be called up quite yet. While Christian Arroyo, Yairo Muñoz, and Michael Chavis have all shown flashes of brilliance at the major league level and this year so far in Spring Training, none of them have definitively earned the starting role at second base. Instead, Alex Cora will turn to his fellow countryman, one of the biggest acquisitions of the offseason for the Red Sox.

While Hernández has the ability to move around the diamond and be an everyday player, his primary role is currently slated to be at second base with the need for a consistent player at the position. While he is not much of a heavy hitter, his ability to put the ball in play, particularly with some authority against left-handed pitchers, makes him the obvious choice to start against John Means on Opening Day.

Hernández is also no slouch as an infielder and baserunner, ranking in the 78th percentile in outs above average and 61st percentile in sprint speed. As with some others on this roster, expect Hernández to hit at the top of the order on off days for other infielders, especially during hot streaks and against lefties, against whom he hits at a career .820 OPS (only .673 against righties).

#9: LF Marwin González

About to turn 32 years old, González is far from the middle-of-the-order bat he was in 2017 when he hit at a sweet .907 OPS and earned MVP votes. However, he is still a solid player that can play both the infield at the outfield. Coming off a disappointment of a season for the Twins where he hit at a .211/.286/.320 slash, González’s place in the order is clearly near the bottom at the moment. The switch-hitter has nearly identical splits from both sides of the plate — in fact, his career batting averages against lefties and against righties both sit at .261.

Despite the fact that he has regularly played every position on the field other than pitcher and catcher over his career, he does an above-average statistical job on defense wherever he plays. As a player, Boston might just be his perfect spot. In his career, González has hit at a .306/.348/.468 slash at Fenway Park. Expect Alex Cora to begin the regular season reunion with González by starting him in front of the Green Monster, the easiest of the three outfield spots to man at Fenway Park.

It’s no secret that with the versatility presented by Chaim Bloom's offseason acquisitions, the Red Sox on-field product can be on high variance, perhaps a stepping stone to a thrilling season. Even if I have nailed my Opening Day lineup prediction, we should expect a chunk of the order to be fluid throughout the season. What did you think of my call for April 1 and what would you change for Cora’s 2021 Sox?

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