After the Yankees acquired Chuck Knoblauch in early February 1998, adding the guy considered to be the best leadoff hitter in baseball to an already potent group of hitters, manager Joe Torre pulled out a pen and a piece of paper and started tinkering with different lineup combinations.
Knoblauch would be his leadoff hitter, of course, and Derek Jeter would hit second. By placing switch-hitter Bernie Williams in the cleanup spot, Torre thought, he could split two veteran left-handed hitters, Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez, in the No. 3 and No. 5 spots in the order. Further down, he could pick a DH/LF combination of Chili Davis -- who would get hurt early that season -- or Tim Raines or Darryl Strawberry or Chad Curtis. One of the catchers, either Joe Girardi or Jorge Posada, would hit near the bottom of the order, next to third baseman Scott Brosius.
Torre's choices were relatively easy, with the pieces falling into place naturally. Speed at the top of the order, a high-average guy in O'Neill to hit third, a switch-hitter in Williams to bat cleanup.
Managers all around baseball are probably going through the same kind of mental exercise now, as they look ahead to 2011. Some of the lineup quandaries could be difficult, and some present some interesting choices. Here are some that stand out:
1. The Phillies: Charlie Manuel's lineup has been left-handed-heavy for years, including in 2008, when Philadelphia won the World Series. But now, with the team's best right-handed hitter, Jayson Werth, having moved on, the left-handedness of this lineup looks to be more acute -- and in the last two postseasons, that has been a problem. For years, Manuel has used Chase Utley as his No. 3 hitter and Ryan Howard at cleanup, but Utley's performance dipped last year; his OPS has declined in each of the past three seasons. He hit well against lefties during the regular season, at .294, but in the postseason, the Giants -- as the Yankees had done in the World Series in 2009 -- repeatedly brought in lefties to face Utley and Howard back to back, and it was a problem.
What can Manuel do about this? Well, he doesn't have a lot of perfect solutions, and he has other possible complications, as well. The switch-hitting Jimmy Rollins has occasionally been dropped into the middle of the lineup in the past, but his OPS progression over the last four years has been steady, and downward:
Shane Victorino's on-base percentage declined to .327 last year, and while Placido Polanco had his typical season in 2010, hitting .298 while playing through injuries, he's not a high-impact hitter. Carlos Ruiz was the Phillies' MVP among the position players last year, and continues to be among the most underrated players in the majors. He's right-handed, too. But is he good enough -- with a career high slugging average of .447 -- to help balance the middle of the Phillies' lineup? Probably not. Last year, he had only five at-bats higher than the No. 7 spot in the lineup.
Manuel has some easy choices to make with his rotation; whether he starts Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels in the No. 2 spot, he can't go wrong. His lineup choices will be much more difficult. Bill Conlin has a take on Manuel's choices here, after talking with the Phillies manager. "I think Chase is a real big key for us," Manuel told Conlin. "We know he played hurt last year and I'm looking for him to bounce back in a big way."
The guess here is that Manuel will lightly pencil in a lineup that looks very similar to what he's had in the past -- with Rollins, Polanco, Utley and Howard hitting 1 through 4 -- but he'll be more inclined to make major changes than he has in the past.
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