Terry Francona has a problem: without a DH for the upcoming nine-game NL road trip, should he play David Ortiz (.313 BA, 17 homers, .977 OPS) at first and move Adrian Gonzalez (.359, 15, 1.019) to right field, or keep Gonzalez at first and use Ortiz primarily as a pinch hitter? Moving Gonzalez preserves the core of the best offense in the majors; sitting Ortiz preserves the third-best defense.
So far, all Francona has done is acknowledge the issue; he has given no indication of which way he’s leaning. But taking into account both his recent struggles and who the Red Sox will play on this road trip, the smart move is to sit Ortiz.
Ortiz and Gonzalez Heading in Opposite Directions
Based on his last 10 games, Ortiz is sliding a little bit. He’s gone hitless in five of those games, including all three at Tampa Bay (Boston’s last away series), and has homered just once. His batting average has dropped 12 points. Gonzalez, meanwhile, is inexplicably getting even stronger. He notched multiple hits in seven of his last 10 games, homering three times and raising his batting average by 18.
Ortiz might be starting to press at a plate. We saw it in Wednesday’s loss to the Padres, where three times he hit weakly into the shift. He’s played in all but two games this year, and he could use a rest.
Now’s a great time to let him step back and collect himself. Ortiz has shown a vulnerability to pressure in the last few seasons, especially when it leads to increasingly accusatory questions from the media. Instead of letting that tension affect Ortiz’s mood, Francona should just give him a few games off.
Upcoming Opponents Won’t Require Gonzalez and Ortiz to Defeat (or Won’t Allow It)
Of the three teams Boston will face – Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Phillies, Houston Astros – only the Phillies pose a real challenge. All three teams have below-average offenses. The Pirates rank in the 20s in batting average, runs, on-base percentage and slugging. To make it even harder for Pittsburgh, they will have to face Boston’s three best pitchers: Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Tim Wakefield.
Boston’s offense is more than capable of outscoring Pittsburgh’s without Ortiz, who is a rather average .279 hitter as a first basemen. The Phillies are another poor-hitting team, they just have patience, often drawing walks (or getting hit by pitches).
Philadelphia’s pitching is the best in the majors, which lets them overcome an offense that doesn’t have a lot of power (20th in slugging) and can’t score (20th in total runs). However, it’s unlikely Ortiz would play first base much in Philadelphia either, because the Red Sox will face lefty Cliff Lee (against whom Ortiz bats .240) Tuesday night. They get a righty on Wednesday, but Phillies manager Charlie Manuel may opt to skip minor-leaguer Vance Worley for 9-3 lefty Cole Hamels (against whom Ortiz is hitless in three appearances) on Thursday.
Given two lefties, it doesn’t make sense to start Ortiz any Phillies game other than Wednesday’s. Unless Gonzalez goes on an absolute tear in Pittsburgh, forcing Francona to play him at all costs, Wednesday will probably be his first day off of the season.
Boston’s final road opponent, the Astros, are the opposite of the Phillies: good hitters with terrible discipline. They strike out all the time and barely ever walk. Although the rotation for the games isn’t set, the Astros will most likely face some combination of Beckett, Lester and Wakefield again. Beckett and Lester are both strikeout machines. Wakefield isn’t, but hitting his knuckleball takes patience more than anything else, and the Astros don’t have it.
The Red Sox pitchers can keep the Astros off the board, and Houston’s pitching is ranked 28th in the majors in both ERA and opponent batting average. Boston can tee off on these guys. This is another series in which Francona doesn’t need to sacrifice team defense – which when good goes unnoticed, but when bad absolutely costs your team games – by playing both of his best hitters.
The Red Sox don’t need both Gonzalez and Ortiz to beat the Pirates or Astros, and playing Ortiz against lefties in Philadelphia makes no sense. Ortiz has batted 40 points weaker on the road this season, and has started to scuffle a bit in his last 10 games. Now is a great opportunity to let him sit back and collect himself before he slips further.
Ortiz can get his confidence back when the Red Sox return to Fenway for seven games against AL East cellar-dwellers Toronto and Baltimore.