The biggest hole in the Boston Red Sox’ lineup resides at the top, where Jacoby Ellsbury’s vacated leadoff spot will force manager John Farrell to make an interesting decision, perhaps on a game-to-game basis.
Ellsbury’s skill set is unique, and the Red Sox don’t have any internal options capable of replicating his dynamism atop the order. But while it’s reasonable to expect an adjustment period, Shane Victorino remains the most logical choice to begin the season as Boston’s leadoff hitter.
Farrell has pointed to Victorino and Daniel Nava as potential leadoff solutions now that Ellsbury is playing for the New York Yankees. Both are rational options, largely because of their on-base ability, and it’s entirely possible that Farrell will install a leadoff platoon — Victorino versus left-handed pitchers and Nava versus right-handed pitchers. Victorino’s speed and, more importantly, experience should give him the upper hand in the conversation, though.
Victorino has led off 216 times in his career, hitting .249 with a .317 on-base percentage in 1,010 plate appearances out of the top spot. He owns a .235 average and .292 on-base percentage in his 216 game-opening plate appearances.
Those numbers don’t jump off the page, particularly when stacked up against Victorino’s career .277 average and .342 on-base percentage, or his .289 average and .352 on-base percentage out of his traditional No. 2 spot. But, even despite last season’s hamstring issues, Victorino is the Red Sox’ biggest stolen-base threat sans Ellsbury. Nava’s potential upside as a leadoff hitter isn’t enough to justify moving Victorino down at least three spots in the order. (It sounds like Farrell is considering Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli in spots two, three, four, respectively.)
Nava has made 35 starts as a leadoff hitter in his career, hitting .252 with a .343 on-base percentage in 170 career plate appearances out of the top spot. Nava is an .097 hitter (3-for-31) with a .200 on-base percentage in 35 game-opening plate appearances, though, which isn’t exactly conducive to a Red Sox offense that ranked second in the majors last season with 0.64 first-inning runs per game.
Victorino being a better leadoff fit isn’t all about his personal ability or Nava’s potential shortcomings, either. Nava’s most valuable trait last season was his versatility, both offensively and defensively. If Farrell prefers to minimize the amount of moving parts within his top four by installing an everyday leadoff hitter rather than a platoon, it would be wise not to pigeonhole Nava, instead allowing him to bounce around between spots five through nine. Plus, Nava projects to split time with Jonny Gomes in left field, so he’ll be absent from the starting lineup much more frequently than Victorino to begin with.
Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts are other potential leadoff options to consider later in the year, but don’t expect either to be the first Red Sox hitter at the dish on Opening Day. The Sox will want to see what they have in the two rookies, and Bogaerts projects more as a middle-of-the-order type, anyway.
Perhaps this is just making a mountain out of a molehill, as a platoon situation atop the order could work, even if the production doesn’t mirror Ellsbury’s 2013 output. But if Farrell wants a certain sense of stability and the luxury of knowing who his top four are each day he arrives at the ballpark, Victorino is the obvious choice to lead off.