Leading off for Sox? It's not so clear cut

Though Yoshida seems logical candidate, Cora wants to separate him from Devers

February 26th, 2023

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Red Sox manager Alex Cora joked that he was giving the media some bait for Sunday’s Grapefruit League contest against the Rays, when he put the gigantic  in the leadoff spot.

The truth of the matter is, it’s far from settled who will serve as Cora’s primary leadoff man this season. Interestingly, it sounds like that spot will not belong to Masataka Yoshida, the prized $90 million signing from Japan.

The ink wasn’t even dry on Yoshida’s contract yet when many media outlets surmised that he would be a great fit at leadoff for Boston because of his keen batting eye. 

It was a natural assertion when you consider Boston’s lack of production at the top of the order last season. 

Cora started the following eight players in the top spot in 2022, with the number of starts for each in parentheses: Tommy Pham (45),  Kiké Hernández (43), Jarren Duran (39), Trevor Story (15), Rob Refsnyder (13), Christian Arroyo (4), Jaylin Davis (2) and Franchy Cordero (1).

The group wasn’t very good collectively (19th in batting average, 27th in on-base percentage, 24th in homers). From an individual standpoint, only Refsnyder (.783 OPS as a leadoff hitter) excelled, but he had the advantage of getting his starts in that spot against his best split -- lefty pitchers -- and his sample size was small (17 games).

So yeah, why wouldn’t the speculation be that Yoshida would bat first for his new team?

“This whole thing about Yoshida leading off, I don’t know [how it started],” said Cora. “If I mentioned it, I didn’t mean to. He might lead off, but he might hit in the middle of the lineup. That's what he's done his whole career. So I think it's about personnel and who we have.”

Yoshida mainly hit third or fourth for the Orix Buffaloes, but that isn’t the main reason Cora sounds reluctant to bat him leadoff.

, Boston’s most dominant hitter, loves hitting second, and Cora equally enjoys putting him in that spot. Devers has made 241 career starts in the two hole and has a .922 OPS, his best at any lineup position.

Why not a Yoshida-Devers combo at the top of the order? Cora is adamant about separating the two lefties so opposing bullpens can’t prey on them with the three-batter rule.

“My main goal is to keep Raffy and Yoshida split up and try to keep Raffy in the second spot,” Cora said. “That would be great.”

Interestingly, Cora is open to bunching other lefties with Devers, but not Yoshida, who seems most likely to bat cleanup for the Sox, at least against righties. In that scenario, Cora says that right-handed-hitting veteran Justin Turner would be the No. 3 hitter. In fact, Cora added that Turner will bat right behind Devers in whatever way the lineup is constructed.

“You know, we’ve got a lot of lefties. A lot. And they’re really good,” said Cora. “We haven't even talked about [Alex Verdugo] in ’20.”

Ah, yes, 2020, a largely forgotten season for many obvious reasons. But Verdugo led off in 33 of his team’s 60 games in that pandemic-shortened season, producing a sturdy .804 OPS. 

And as much as Cora was being light-hearted with the media about Casas, the manager acknowledged that the big first baseman -- also known for his excellent batting eye -- could wind up hitting first at times. 

If a right-handed hitter winds up at the top, it is all but certain to be Hernández, who flourished there in the second half of the 2021 season and went on a historic run that postseason. Last year, however, Hernández played through pain in his right hip for the first couple of months and then went on the injured list for the next couple. It would be ideal for Boston’s lineup construction/balance if Hernández -- now the team’s starting shortstop -- could win his old job back.

“Would I like to hit leadoff? Yes,” said Hernández. “But at the same time, it’s like not I’ll be bothered wherever I hit in the lineup. I want what’s best for the team, and I’ll hit wherever they want, to be honest with you. I liked hitting there, but if they need me to hit toward the middle or at the bottom, whatever.”

With more than a month to go before Opening Day, Cora has plenty of time to settle on a lineup. At this point, all options seem to be open.