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BOSTON -- With the Boston Red Sox having added first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and left fielder Carl Crawford to an already potent lineup, the club's potential batting order has been a major topic of hot stove conversation.
“Does outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury remain in the leadoff spot? Does Crawford take over that role? Would second baseman Dustin Pedroia be comfortable moving from his normal spot at No. 2? Who hits cleanup? Where does Gonzalez fit? What about the bottom of the order? "I hope we've made the lineup a lot deeper, a lot more dynamic," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said Saturday at Crawford's introductory news conference. "It's a pretty rare opportunity for an organization to add two of the best players in the game under 30, in my opinion, to a core that I feel is already young in its prime. We should have one of the deepest, most dynamic, hopefully best lineups in the league."
Obviously [Carl Crawford] will hit somewhere near the top of the order -- second or third. We want to have some balance as much as we can with Adrian [Gonzalez] and [Kevin Youkilis] following, and David [Ortiz] and J.D. [Drew]. There are some things to think about.” -- Terry Francona
There's still work to be done this offseason to round it all into place, including the bullpen. But at this moment, the Red Sox lineup is impressive.
"At the end of the offseason people will say what they want about how we look on paper, but that really doesn't matter," Epstein said. "We've got to go out and grind through it over the course of 162 games and prove who is the best club."
It's also a safe bet that Epstein and manager Terry Francona have had some fun making up mock lineups this offseason.
After the club held its press conference Saturday morning at Fenway Park to introduce Crawford, Francona was asked if he could envision what his lineup card would look like. He made it clear who he wants as his leadoff hitter.
"I think I've been pretty consistent all along, our best team is when Jacoby is hitting first," explained Francona. "Is that Opening Day? Is that May 1? Whatever is in his best interest ends up in our best interest."
Ellsbury was limited to 18 games last season due to three separate rib injuries. He has been deemed asymptomatic and will be ready for spring training, according to Epstein.
"He missed pretty much a full year, and if he's ready to [lead off] that's great," Francona said. "If he's not, we can give him a little bit of a break and hit him down in the order. We've done that in the past, and we'll do it again. But I still think our best lineup is when he leads off."
|Red Sox manager Terry Francona said his best lineup will have Jacoby Ellsbury hitting leadoff. Whether that's on Opening Day or further down the line is still to be determined.|
When Epstein and Francona visited with Crawford in Houston, the group talked about those mock lineups and what the left fielder's impact would be if he played in Boston.
"We were kind of having fun with it," Francona said. "You've got to talk about something and I couldn't offer the money, but we talked about where he was comfortable hitting in the batting order."
Crawford told his would-be manager that he was comfortable hitting anywhere near the top of the order, it didn't matter if that meant first, second or third.
Early in his career, as Crawford was still developing into a top-notch talent, he made a comment that he preferred to bat somewhere other than leadoff. He said during his press conference Saturday morning at Fenway Park that it really doesn't matter.
"I really don't mind hitting anywhere in the lineup," Crawford said. "I think those statements came when I was a little younger in my career, so it kind of stayed with me that I didn't like hitting leadoff. I definitely don't have a problem hitting anywhere.
"As far as knowing where I'm going to hit, Terry's the manager and I'm pretty sure whatever lineup he makes, I'll be fine with it. I told him I can play anywhere, whatever he wants to do with me is fine. I just want to play and that's all I'm going to do."
Earlier this offseason, Crawford told the St. Petersburg Times he "just wasn't comfortable" hitting leadoff earlier in his career.
"I just thought I sucked at it, to be honest with you," Crawford said. "Lou [Piniella] put me second. Maybe I could have gotten better at it, but I just wasn't comfortable. It didn't have anything to do with stats. I just don't think I'm a good leadoff hitter."
Crawford has not batted leadoff since the first week of the 2007 season. In all, he has served as leadoff hitter in 367 games, batting .288 with a .323 on-base percentage and a .421 slugging percentage (.744 OPS). Since then, he has hit primarily out of the 2-hole, although on Aug. 9 Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon installed him in the No. 3 spot and left him there. Crawford went .323/.364/.526 (.890) with 7 home runs and 32 RBIs after the change.
During their conversation in Houston a couple of weeks ago, Crawford asked Francona what he would want from him.
"We want you to just be yourself," answered Francona.
It's not uncommon to see four or five different lineups drawn up in pencil on Francona's desk on game days, and the manager usually doesn't like it when he's asked publicly about it. It's a safe bet he's having fun with his current roster, especially with the additions of Gonzalez and Crawford.
"Obviously [Crawford] will hit somewhere near the top of the order -- second or third," Francona said. "We want to have some balance as much as we can with Adrian and [Kevin Youkilis] following, and David [Ortiz] and J.D. [Drew]. There are some things to think about.
"At the same time, if they hit, it's not going to be an issue for me. We're not asking guys to do different things because they're hitting in different areas. We just want them to be the players they are and we'll line it up where we think it works best."
Even though Francona did not mention where he would slot Pedroia in the lineup, it's highly unlikely he would move him from near the top of the order. The manager said he would talk about lineup ideas with Pedroia, Youkilis and Crawford before they report to Fort Myers, Fla. in the middle of February for spring training.
Having played in the same division as the Red Sox during his entire big league career, Crawford knows how potent Boston's lineup is each season.
"I envision it as a very exciting lineup, even though I'm not sure what the lineup is going to be, but I definitely feel like it can be a very productive lineup," he said. "It has about everything you need. I'm pretty sure Terry is going to have a good time writing the lineup every night. I'm just looking forward to being in it."
The Red Sox are loaded with left-handed hitters (potentially five, plus a switch-hitter at catcher), but Francona said he's not worried about that. Ellsbury, Crawford, Gonzalez, Ortiz and Drew all carry left-handed bats, while Pedroia, Youkilis and shortstop Marco Scutaro hit from the right side. Catchers Jason Varitek and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, along with infielder Jed Lowrie, are all switch-hitters.
"At some point, we're going to have two, maybe three [lefties] in a row on some days, and thankfully they're good hitters," Francona said. "We'll try to line it up, and I'll do some thinking on that."
Francona said his biggest challenge will be trying to spread out his lefties in the lineup enough so that opposing teams will have to pick their spots with left-handed relief specialists, instead of calling them in to face several left-handed hitters in a row.
This offseason the Red Sox also have been looking for a fourth outfielder who swings from the right-hand side and can hit lefties well. They already have that with Mike Cameron, who recently said he would accept a different role with the Sox. Cameron has a .372 on-base percentage and .866 OPS against lefties in his career.
No matter how the names stack up in Boston's lineup, it will be a potent one if everyone remains healthy for the 2011 season and beyond.
"We talk about [adding] Adrian and what he did to the lineup, then you add a guy like Carl Crawford, our lineup got a lot better," Francona said.
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter. Information from ESPNBoston.com's Gordon Edes was used in this report.