The Devil’s Workshop: Exploring Dave Dombrowski’s Lineup Options

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Although the Boston Red Sox are not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, it is time to accept that the season is over. As the team plays out the string and the kids continue to play well, Rick Rowand takes us on a journey exploring Dave Dombrowski’s options with regards to the starting rotation.

Since Dave Dombrowski joined the Boston Red Sox on August 18 as the new President of Baseball Operations, information coming from Yawkey Way about the team’s future direction  has been almost non-existent, which is to be expected. But it leaves people like us with idle hands and idle minds. It’s like living in the the devil’s workshop on steroids. So, except for articles on moves like the De Aza trade, or Papi edging closer to 500 home runs, we get to fill space by making slightly educated guesses on what Dombrowski will be doing to remake the current team for 2016 and beyond.

We’ll be breaking this down into a series of articles including the coaching staff, the everyday players and the bullpen.

The Sox started this season touting their “Ace! We don’t need no stinkin’ ace!” strategy, but the inconsistency of their starters combined with the ineptitude of the pen and lack of offense doomed that strategy to failure. It hasn’t been until recently that the majority of the starters and the offense have been living up to expectations. Day late…

The first article covered the starting rotation. In this one, we’ll talk about the everyday roster.

Dave Dombrowski is in a very enviable position. He has one of the best farm systems in baseball, one that is already contributing to the resurgence of the team in Boston. To go with those riches, he has a major league club which is only a few moves away from competing for the playoffs again (and he has Ben Cherington and the rest of Baseball Ops to thank for that).

In the outfield, the Sox opened the season with converted shortstop Hanley Ramirez in left, Mookie Betts in center and Shane Victorino in right with Allen Craig and Daniel Nava as the backups.

In the infield, Boston had Pablo Sandoval at third, Xander Bogaerts at short, Dustin Pedroia at second and Mike Napoli at first. Super sub Brock Holt was the backup at all positions with Craig and Napoli able to play at first as well. Holt could also play all outfield positions.

The Catchers

The Sox had hoped to start the season with Christian Vazquez as the starting catcher, with Ryan Hanigan taking over the role of “veteran presence” from David Ross. But fate had something else in mind as Vazquez had season ending Tommy John surgery in the spring, which led to the Sox bringing in Sandy Leon, he of little offense, to back up Hanigan.

When Hanigan went on the DL the first of May with a broken finger on his throwing hand the Sox were then forced to call up Blake Swihart to be the primary catcher. In the minors Swihart was known as an offense-first catcher, but had made significant strides on defense and was named the Minor League defensive catcher of the year by Baseball America after the 2014 season.

When he was called up, the Sox wanted him to focus on defense and learning to call the games. His offensive numbers reflected that, as he went .241/.279/.323 in 38 games during the first half. So far in the second half he’s been hitting .354/.415/.490 in 28 games and, to my eyes, improved defensively. With Hanigan now back and being his usual Hanigan self, they make a nice backstop tandem to go into 2016 with. But then again, we also need to account for Christian Vazquez.

Vazquez showed us last season that he has an excellent arm and is advanced defensively. He also put up a batting line of .240/.308/.309 in 55 games. Not what you’d call setting the world on fire at the plate, but his strengths are controlling the running game and pitch framing, much like his mentors the Molina brothers, whom he has worked out with in the offseason. His game most resembles Yadier Molina’s quick release and strong arm, but he’s closest with Jose, which shows up in his defense behind the plate.

Barring a trade, the Sox will go into spring training holding three catchers with different strengths and experience catching at the major league level. With questions also remaining about how fully Vazquez will recover from Tommy John surgery, Dombrowski faces a decision that may have no easy answers when the time comes to make one.

The Infield

During spring training the infield will really only have one question mark in it as it stands now. Well, really two question marks.

With third base, shortstop and second base all set for 2016, the biggest question will be, “Who’s on first?

Who Pablo Sandoval, Xander Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia will be throwing to across the diamond will be critical to the success of the team in 2016 and beyond, as Mike Napoli’s offensive implosion showed us all in 2015.

If you’re keeping score at home, this will be the second new position that the Sox will try Ramirez at. The first being, of course, the failed experiment in left field. If you watched any games this year, you could see that he was terrible out there. Bless his heart, he took bad routes to balls, was tentative on throws and on balls hit in front of him, and routinely misjudged balls caroming off the wall. He also fought through injuries for much of the season: his left shoulder was injured running into the wall along the left field foul line, his right shoulder injured throwing a ball in, his hand when it was nailed by a line drive while going from first to second as a runner, and a left foot that kept him out of the lineup after being targeted by multiple foul balls.

The key theories behind moving Ramirez to first are that, being an infielder for his entire career it will be an easier transition defensively, and that because he won’t be chasing balls hither and yon, his body will hold up much better than it did in left and he’ll be able to contribute at his expected levels on offense.

He’s currently on the DL for his right shoulder, so all he’s able to do at the moment is work out with infield coach Brian Butterfield on his footwork and fielding. It won’t be until the end of the season that he might be able to play there during games, and even then we won’t be able to get a clear idea of how he’ll do there long-term until next spring.

Travis Shaw is the only other candidate currently on the roster and he’s been playing fairly well since Napoli was traded to the Rangers, certainly better than what was expected of him based on his minor league numbers. His best seasons were in High A ball in 2012 where he hit . 305/.411/.545 with 16 homers in 99 games, and in AA in 2014 where he hit an eerily similar .305/.406/.548 with 11 homers in 47 games. He played in 127 games with Portland in 2013 and hit .221/.342/.394 with 16 home runs. He played 81 and 77 games with Pawtucket in 2014 and 2015 and had lines of .262/.321/.431 and .249/.318/.356 respectively. In 40 games with Boston he’s at .273/.319/.516 with eight home runs. Shaw started out pretty hot when he started to play on a regular basis, but has slowed down in the past couple of weeks.

Oh, the second question: what weight will Sandoval show up at when he reports to Spring Training?

The Outfield

Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley Jr. have the potential to be the best defensive outfield in the majors next season. All three have strong experience playing center field, which shows in their speed, range and routes to balls. The strongest arm belongs to JBJ followed by Castillo and then Betts. But Betts’ arm still is stronger than Damon’s or Ellsbury’s was when they roamed the triangle. Overall, JBJ is the strongest of the three in the field, but they are almost interchangeable based on what park they are playing in.

I prefer Betts in left, mainly because JBJ and Castillo have the stronger arms, with JBJ in center and Castillo in right. But, good arguments can also be made in favor of different alignments. With these three, you could almost just draw straws to see who plays where on any given night. Additionally, because they are almost interchangeable, you don’t have to worry as much about an injury to one with Holt (who can also play any outfield position adequately) on the roster.

DH

They’ve got David Ortiz and he’s not going anywhere for at least another season.

What to do? What to do?

I have no idea what Dombrowski will do, but here’s how I think things will shake out in 2016.

The decisions they’ve made down the stretch this year indicate the outfield is set with JBJ, Betts and Castillo in some configuration. Unless the Sox can grab a young, front of the rotation ace with Betts or JBJ in the mix, this is the outfield that Sox fans will enjoy watching for the foreseeable future.

In the infield, again with the usual caveat, all of the positions are set except for first. What happens there is up to what Dombrowski sees in spring training and early into the season. If Ramirez is able to handle first defensively and returns to his early-season form on offense, it’s a no brainer. He’s your first basemen – especially with his contract. However, if he’s not able to handle the position, they do have Shaw as an adequate backup, something they need no matter what happens because Ramirez is an injury waiting to happen, averaging 116 games a season prior to 2015. There also a chance that Dombrowski will be able to trade Ramirez to some unwitting GM without having to eat most of his contract. But I rate the odds of that happening about the same as being hit by lightning – while being attacked by a shark.

Behind the plate my preference would be to start the season with Swihart as the starter and Hanigan as the veteran backup. Vazquez has only recently began “baseball related activities” so he probably won’t be able to start full-effort throwing until this winter at the earliest. The Sox are going to take no chances with that arm, and there’s no need to put him right back on the 25-man roster until he has a chance to play in AAA for a while and they can re-evaluate.

I wonder if Dombrowski is a Mel Brooks fan, because in this case, it’s certainly good to be the King.

*Click here for Rick’s rotation plan.

Rick Rowand has written about the value of Brock Holt, Boston’s rotationBrock Holt’s cycle and aura, and a series about Bogaerts, Betts and Swihart, a screenplay of Napoli’s last days on the Sox, Travis Shaw, what to do with Hanley Ramirez, and Kim Ng.

Follow Rick on Twitter @rrowand.

Check out Ian York’s take on Rusney Castillo’s recent breakout.

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