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At three positions, Red Sox can't afford question marks

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  February 25, 2013 09:54 AM

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From the starting rotation to first base and left field, questions abound. So here are three places where the Red Sox absolutely cannot afford to have any significant mishaps during the season.

Second base, third base, center field.

Opening Day is now precisely five weeks away, the Red Sox set to open their 2013 season (and embark on a new era?) with an April 1 affair against the New York Yankees in the Bronx. Boston's projected lineup that day will likely include Jon Lester on the mound, Mike Napoli at first base and Jonny Gomes in left field, but there are decidedly few positions on the field where manager John Farrell will write in the same names, day in and day out, regardless of whether the opposing starter is left- or right-handed.

There are, after all, only three players in Boston's projected starting lineup who can boast both relative youth and legitimate talent: Dustin Pedroia, Will Middlebrooks, and Jacoby Ellsbury.

Last week, Farrell all but acknowledged as much, at least with regard to Middlebrooks, citing a concern over the Red Sox' absence of depth at third base. Middlebrooks appeared in just 75 games last season after breaking his right wrist on Aug. 10, an injury that resulted when he was hit by a pitch.

If the Red Sox were to lose Middlebrooks for any length of time this year, the damage could be considerable. He is 24 years old. He will be relied upon heavily for thunder in the middle of the Boston lineup. (Farrell himself has noted Middlebrooks' power this spring.) And yet, when you get right down to it, Middlebrooks might be third on the list of the Red Sox' most indispensable players, behind only Pedroia and Ellsbury, not necessarily in that order.

Take a good, long look at the players in the Boston lineup. Most of all them come with some sort of significant injury or production issues. David Ortiz is coming off an Achilles' injury that was worrisome enough for the Red Sox to include specific language in his contract. Napoli has hip problems. Stephen Drew has played a combined 165 games over the last two seasons. Gomes has a long history as a platoon player.

Beyond that, Jarrod Saltalamacchia has a career average of .226 during his Red Sox career and a .203 average from the right side of the plate. Shane Victorino slugged a paltry .383 last season - including a .379 number at hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park - and looks like a a deteriorating player who can't hit righthanded pitching anymore.

Add them all up and you get either major health concerns or enough evidence to suggest the man in question is a platoon player - or both - which cannot help but make you wonder about the stability of the Boston lineups over the marathon that is the 162-game regular season.

We've said it before: maybe the most underrated statistic in all of professional sports is games played, for two obvious reasons. First, it means you are healthy enough to play. Second, it means you are productive enough for a manager or coach to keep you involved. The 2013 Red Sox seem to have an especially low number of players who fit this criteria, and extending the list to include both Ellsbury and Middlebrooks might be generous.

In the case of the former, after all, he has missed a whopping 232 games over the last three seasons, the obvious majority of them coming in 2010 and 2012. In the case of the latter, he has never played a full season in the major leagues. But Ellsbury, Pedroia, and Middlebrooks are a respective 29, 29 and 24 years old entering this season, and significant injury suffered by any of them in recent years has largely been the result of collision or impact.

Ortiz and Napoli, by contrast, have injuries resulting from physical decay or age. Drew has had a laundry list of problems. (In his case, maybe it's just genetic.) But based on age and ability, Ellsbury, Pedroia and Middlebrooks should be in the lineup every day - and, arguably, in the same lineup spots - which means they are the foundation of Farrell's team.

A suggestion for Farrell: put Ellsbury in the leadoff spot, Pedroia in the No. 3 hole and Middlebrooks fifth. And leave 'em there.

When Terry Francona was manager of the Red Sox, he often talked about the stability certain players provided the team, most notably someone like Jason Bay, who replaced the unpredictable Manny Ramirez in left field. When Francona arrived at the ballpark, he had one less thing to think about because he knew Bay would play. Former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre long had a similar privilege with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, who generally remained healthy and productive through the heart of their careers.

For any team, those players are critical. Relative to most other sports, baseball is a game where consistency and stability have greater meaning. The season is a true marathon. Most teams can handle issues on the periphery, but problems at the core of any lineup are akin to holes in the hull of ship.

For the Red Sox this year, Farrell is operating with a relatively thin, brittle hull. As constituted, the Red Sox are almost certain to encounter problems elsewhere. And when they do, Farrell must arrive at the ballpark knowing that he can always write in the names of Ellsbury, Pedroia and Middlebrooks without much concern.

If he loses that, his job will become infinitely more difficult.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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