- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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.
2. The Cardinals: Lance Berkman, the Cardinals' new right fielder, could hit in just about every spot in the lineup other than leadoff -- and heck, he could do that, too, if he got back to being a .400 on-base percentage type of hitter (he had a .399 OBP in 2009). But the presence of Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday means that Berkman doesn't have to hit in the middle of the St. Louis order. Berkman could hit fifth, naturally. Or the switch-hitter could hit fourth, splitting the right-handed hitting Pujols and Holliday, which might occasionally prompt the opposing manager to burn an extra reliever, given that Berkman, while a switch-hitter, has been much better as a left-handed hitter in recent years.
Tony La Russa has always liked having a high-OBP guy hitting second in his lineup; remember how he sometimes employed Jim Edmonds in that spot?
The bet here is that as the season evolves, the Cardinals' 2-3-4-5 will often look like this: Berkman, Pujols, Holliday, Colby Rasmus. We'll see.
3. The Red Sox: There is no definitive word on how the Red Sox are going to structure what should be a very deep lineup, but generally, a lot of the speculation has had Jacoby Ellsbury hitting leadoff, followed by Dustin Pedroia, Carl Crawford, Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez. Given that Crawford has never liked leading off and would prefer to hit No. 2 or No. 3 -- as he did with the Rays -- it's a natural thought to place Ellsbury in the leadoff spot.
But here's the thing: By hitting Ellsbury in the leadoff spot -- a year after Ellsbury played in just 18 games because of injury, hitting .192 -- it decreases the likelihood that Gonzalez or Youkilis gets a fifth plate appearance in a game. If I'm sitting in Terry Francona's shoes (and I'm not, decidedly), I'd want the four best hitters in the lineup -- Pedroia, Youkilis, Gonzalez and Crawford -- with the best chance to get a fifth plate appearance late in games.
That would mean a lineup that looks like this:
5. David Ortiz
Nos. 6 through 8 could be some combination of J.D. Drew, Mike Cameron, the catcher du jour and the shortstop. Then at No. 9., Ellsbury. By hitting Ellsbury ninth, the Red Sox would essentially have a second leadoff hitter bookending the other half of their lineup, hitting ahead of Pedroia as the lineup turns over.
4. The Rays: With Crawford and Carlos Pena gone, the Rays have to find ways to force opposing pitchers to pitch to Evan Longoria, something that happened with less and less frequency as 2010 wore on. B.J. Upton wouldn't be a good fit to hit behind Longoria, because of his high strikeout totals, and Ben Zobrist might not be a perfect solution, either. The guess here is that Manny Ramirez will wind up batting behind Longoria -- at least at the outset of the season -- because despite the fact that Ramirez is perceived to have lost bat speed and, in turn, to have lost power, he is respected because of his quality at-bats. Even in what was a down year last season, Ramirez posted a .409 OBP for the Dodgers and White Sox, including a .420 OBP in Chicago.
For the readers: What are your favorite lineup solutions, and quandaries?
• Some follow-up on the stunning Vernon Wells trade:
1. The Jays are not likely to be finished with their deal-making, writes Richard Griffin. I totally agree with what he writes here: Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera do not fit with what Toronto is trying to do. They were just part of the vehicle necessary to dump the Wells contract.
2. Arte Moreno paid to get rid of the "cheap" label, writes Randy Youngman.
Moves, deals and decisions
4. It's sounding more and more like the White Sox third-base job is Brent Morel's to lose, writes Mark Gonzalez.
5. A demotion is not dimming Garrett Jones' spirit, writes Colin Dunlap.
8. The Rangers finished a deal with arbitration-eligible Darren O'Day.
9. The Giants have basically stood pat this winter, writes Henry Schulman.
10. The father of the Padres' military program is retiring.
• Sad news about Gus Zernial.
• Sparky Anderson's family responded to the Tigers' decision to retire his number.
• The Twins' relief situation will work itself out, writes Jim Souhan.
• Bob Castellini is serious about his promise to Reds fans, writes John Fay.
• A pitcher was arrested.
• Brian McPherson writes about a couple of Red Sox catching prospects.
• Youth makes the Orioles an intriguing team, writes Scott Lauber.
• The young Tigers must contribute regularly, writes Lynn Henning.
• The Nationals have raised the stakes, writes Thomas Boswell.
• The Commodores had a really nice win Saturday against St. Mary's.
• It's 22 degrees below zero here in Vermont. How many more days until pitchers and catchers report?
And today will be better than yesterday.
Charlie Manuel has one of the easier jobs in the game when it comes to picking his starters. But Philadelphia's batting order is a different story. Buster looks at this and other top lineup questions facing some good teams.