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Monday, March 5, 2012
Morning report: Lineup card or dry erase?

By Gordon Edes

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Good morning from the Fort, where the Sox return to action under the lights in Hammonds Stadium on Monday night against the Minnesota Twins, with Clay Buchholz pitching in a game for the first time since he was shut down with a stress fracture in his back last June.

Bobby Valentine
Bobby Valentine might not use as many lineup combinations as you'd think.
And maybe I’m reading him all wrong, but I don’t think Bobby Valentine will need a dry erase board for a lineup card because of the myriad combinations he supposedly plans to employ this season.

Yes, Valentine said at the outset of camp that he expects to have at least 100 lineups this season, but this is hardly a radical departure from standard baseball practice. Terry Francona used 141 lineups in his first season with the Red Sox, peaked at 143 in 2010, and used 123 last season, according to The 2012 Bill James Handbook. Tony La Russa had 100-plus lineups in each of the last 17 seasons he managed, peaking at 153 in 2008.

There was only one manager in the big leagues who used fewer than 100 lineups in a full season last year, and that was Joe Girardi of the Yankees, who used 94. The Yankees were second in the majors in runs scored, by the way, with 867.

Why so many lineups? Injuries are a big factor, platoons at some positions, revolving DH’s, rest days, slumps, and a couple of spots in the lineup that regularly vary from game to game.

But when you have six everyday players who are All-Stars, like the Red Sox have, I believe that Valentine will eventually settle on regular spots for most of those All-Stars. Maybe it won’t be the same as it was in the past -- Sunday, he cited again how Mike Piazza told him he could only hit third until Valentine told him in midseason of 1998, sorry, you’re my cleanup hitter, and Piazza hit 19 home runs the rest of that season and 40 the next -- but there will be continuity.

“With all the All-Stars we have,’’ Kevin Youkilis remarked early in camp, “our lineup could almost be a grab bag.’’

True enough, but I believe that in the end, Valentine will not be significantly different in his approach from Francona, who last season, for all his different lineups, had five players in the same spot in the order for at least 100 games. Jacoby Ellsbury hit leadoff, Dustin Pedroia second, Adrian Gonzalez third, Kevin Youkilis fourth and David Ortiz fifth. If Carl Crawford had not gotten off to such a horrendous start, I believe there would have been a sixth.

Crawford’s uncertain availability at the start of the season muddles the picture. If Crawford isn’t ready by the opener, and Valentine would prefer that he be fully healthy than rush back, the Sox manager will likely mix and match until his return. But once Crawford is back, I believe that Valentine will opt for stability, the way he did with a healthy Mets team in 1999, when the same player batted in the same spot in six of eight lineup spots for at least 100 games.

That formula worked for the Red Sox last season, when they scored a major-league leading 875 runs. Players respond to consistency and understanding their roles. Valentine will tinker and platoon plenty, especially in the lower third of the order. But his six All-Stars? Valentine will settle on a combination that works, and with only minor deviations, will trust in it.