We all love a good baseball argument, and with Opening Day arriving Thursday, we already know this much about the 2012 Boston Red Sox: They are going to spur a heck of lot of those arguments. For evidence, just take a look at Version 2.0 of my periodic rankings of the players on the 2012 Red Sox’ roster from 25 to 1 (based primarily but vaguely on projected importance to the team’s success immediately and in the near future). This is the third year I’ve done these rankings, and it’s perhaps the most challenging. Who is more irreplaceable: Ellsbury, Gonzalez, or Pedroia? How do you quantify all that Alfredo Aceves does? And will I make the mistake of ranking Bobby Jenks ever again? Click through to see the rankings, and let us know how you’d rank ‘em.
1. Dustin Pedroia
Previous ranking: 1
Pedroia was one of three Red Sox players to finish in the top 10 in AL MVP balloting last season, coming in ninth after a season in which he hit .307 with 21 homers, 91 RBIs, 195 hits, and 37 doubles while winning the Gold Glove award at second base. The argument can be made that either Gonzalez or Ellsbury belongs in the top spot on this list, but we’re going with Pedey not only because of his production, but because in the transition from Terry Francona to Bobby Valentine and in the effort to put the hideous September behind them, his leadership and attitude are more essential than ever.
2. Adrian Gonzalez
Previous ranking: 2
In his first season with the Red Sox, the sweet-swinging first baseman led the AL in hits (213) while batting .338 with a .957 OPS and hitting 27 homers. He was seventh in the AL MVP balloting, but there’s also the sense he could be even better in ‘12. Whether it was because of a shoulder injury or his participation in the Home Run Derby, his second half (.317-10-40) did not match his first half (.354-17-77) when he was the best hitter in the league not named Jose Bautista. We’re putting him down for 40 homers and a legitimate shot at the MVP award in ‘12.
3. Jon Lester
Previous ranking: 4
Statistically, the 28-year-old lefty had another fine season in ‘11, going 15-9 with a 3.47 ERA and 182 strikeouts in 191.2 innings. But projections that he would become a frontrunner for the AL Cy Young Award proved wishful, and his September struggles coupled with his involvement in the clubhouse chaos were disappointing. The Red Sox need him to be an ace in ‘12 -- particularly if Josh Beckett misses any length of time -- and his attitude and determination this spring suggest a big season is ahead.
4. Jacoby Ellsbury
Previous ranking: 3
If you want to put him first, well, who are we to argue? The center fielder is coming off a spectacular 2011 season in which he hit .321 with a .928 OPS and clubbed 32 homers, 23 more than his previous career high, while finishing second to Justin Verlander in the AL MVP voting. He was also one of the few Red Sox who performed well in September (.358, eight homers). So why do we have him fourth? Because the Red Sox have two other elite hitters, and an ace is essential. But Ellsbury has become a truly sensational ballplayer.
5. Josh Beckett
Previous ranking: 5
His 2011 season was a microcosm of the team’s itself: An excellent summer was ruined by an ugly performance in September (5.48 ERA in four starts), and he was one of the central figures in the poisonous clubhouse culture as the season slipped away. Beckett finished with 13 wins, a 2.89 ERA, and a team-best 193 innings pitched. The Red Sox need him to excel on the mound and be accountable away from it, but unfortunately, ‘12 begins under a cloud, with a thumb injury threatening to cost him an early start or two.
6. Clay Buchholz
Previous ranking: 6
One advantage both the Rays and Yankees appear to have on the Red Sox in the AL East is depth of starting pitching. But if Buchholz, who excelled in 2010 (17 wins, 2.33 ERA in 28 starts) but who didn’t throw a major league pitch after June 16 last year because of a fracture in his back, can return to form, the Red Sox could have a top three that matches up with anyone. With Josh Beckett dealing with a thumb injury to start the season, it’s imperative that Buchholz, who has a 4.80 ERA in 15 innings this spring, finds his good form immediately.
7. Alfredo Aceves
Previous ranking: 12
Is there a way the Red Sox can clone him? Signed as a free agent by the Red Sox last February after he was discarded by the Yankees, the rubber-armed righthander proved to be the glue of the pitching staff, throwing 114 innings in 55 games (four starts) with a 2.61 ERA. He was particularly essential for his ability to throw more than one high-leverage inning at a time. But with Andrew Bailey out, he could close . . . and that’s if he’s not temporarily replacing an injured Josh Beckett in the rotation, where he’d prefer to be.
8. Kevin Youkilis
Previous ranking: 7
Youkilis suffered through his second straight injury-plagued season, missing 42 games last year after a thumb injury limited him to 102 games in ‘10. He struggled defensively in the move back to third base, hit just .258, and his .833 OPS was his lowest since ‘06. The Red Sox are counting on a bounce-back -- and good health -- from their cleanup hitter and Tom Brady’s future brother-in-law in ‘12. It is a small concern that he’s hit just .211 through 38 at-bats this spring.
9. David Ortiz
Previous ranking: 9
Perhaps this is too high in the order for a designated hitter who turned 36 in November. But Ortiz is still an extremely productive hitter -- he finished ‘11 with 29 homers, 96 RBIs, and a .953 OPS. And with there being more questions in the Red Sox’ traditionally potent lineup this year than in previous springs, it’s imperative that Big Papi remains a force in the middle of the order.
10. Mark Melancon
Previous ranking: 13
Acquired from the Astros in a December deal that sent Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland to Houston, the former Yankee is expected to slide into the chief righthanded setup role vacated by Daniel Bard -- provided that he’s not called upon to close in Bailey’s absence. While Melancon’s stuff isn’t electric -- he depends upon a slider more than anything else -- his results last season with the Astros were excellent (2.78 ERA, 20 saves) and he is said to have off-the-charts makeup.
11. Carl Crawford
Previous ranking: 8
His first season after signing a lucrative free agent contract with the Red Sox went as if it had been scripted by a Yankees fan -- he hit .255 with just 18 stolen bases, and the stellar defense he played in left field for nine seasons with the Rays suddenly became mediocre at best. He’s an enigma entering his second season in Boston, and that season will start late due to a setback following offseason wrist surgery. Perhaps the delayed start will help him fly under the radar, because the Red Sox need Crawford to be the player who tormented them for so long when he was an opponent.
12. Daniel Bard
Previous ranking: 10
After three seasons as the Red Sox’ hard-throwing, highly effective setup man, Bard slides into a new role -- as a starting pitcher. While logic suggests getting 180 innings as a starter from a pitcher of Bard’s ability is wiser than getting 70 or so innings in relief, there is some risk involved, and manager Bobby Valentine seems unconvinced that this is the right approach to take. With the injury to Bailey, it must be tempting to send him back to the bullpen. But the Red Sox need to find out whether he can make the transition to the role he prefers, even if that means enduring some growing pains.
13. Mike Aviles
Previous ranking: 15
Having won the shortstop job over defensively dazzling but offensively raw rookie Jose Iglesias in camp, the 31-year-old former Royal could be a real sleeper this year. He’s a career .288 hitter, hit .325 with 10 homers as a rookie in ‘08, and has an .814 career OPS against lefthanded pitching. If he can stay healthy, he’s capable of matching and even surpassing the departed Marco Scutaro’s production.
14. Cody Ross
Previous ranking: 16
Ross has had a huge spring (.372, 6 HRs, 16 RBIs), and his effervescent personality will make the 2010 NLCS Most Valuable Player a fan-favorite at Fenway, provided he produces against lefthanded pitching the way he has for most of his career (.912 OPS, 46 homers in 759 plate appearances). Presuming he moves over to right field when Carl Crawford returns to health, he’s pretty much a lock to produce more than J.D. Drew and Josh Reddick did a season ago.
15. Jarrod Saltalamacchia
Previous ranking: 14
The 27-year-old catcher showed signs of fulfilling the promise that once made him one of baseball’s top catching prospects, smacking 16 home runs, slugging .450, and throwing out 31 percent of basestealers. But he also had his lows -- a .288 on-base percentage, a 24/119 BB/K ratio, and a .162 batting average in September. With Ryan Lavarnway improving defensively and looking like a future middle-of-the-order hitter, further improvement is required of Saltalamacchia in ‘12 if he is going to be the Red Sox’ catcher beyond this season.
16. Andrew Bailey
Previous ranking: 11
The 2009 AL Rookie of the Year has a 2.07 ERA and 75 saves in his three seasons, and his third-most similar pitcher through age 27 is Jonathan Papelbon, whom he was acquired to replace. Bailey has the ability to live up to the task, but the main concern with him -- durability -- has already become an issue before the season has begun. Thumb surgery will sideline Bailey for 3-4 months, throwing the bullpen into flux and making it challenging to figure where he ranks among the current Red Sox.
17. Felix Doubront
Previous ranking: Not ranked
After making a mostly good impression (4.32 ERA in 12 appearances) during his first taste of big league action in 2010, Doubront was expected to be a contributor to the Red Sox a season ago. But he showed up to spring training out of shape, and injuries limited him to just 85.2 innings over three levels last season. The 24-year-old lefty had a better sense of purpose this spring and made the most of his opportunity, seizing the No. 4 spot in the rotation with a 2.70 ERA in 16.2 innings this spring. There’s a lot here to like.
18. Franklin Morales
Previous ranking: 19
Once one of the game’s best pitching prospects, the 26-year-old will break camp as the top lefthander in the bullpen. Morales’s command was improved after coming to Boston from Colorado last May, trimming nearly two walks off his BB/9 ratio, and he has the power stuff to succeed in the role. He did not allow a run in 5.1 innings this spring.
19. Nick Punto
Previous ranking: 18
The 34-year-old utilityman is coming off a strong season for the champion Cardinals, having posted an .809 OPS in 166 plate-appearances. It may be too much to expect him to replicate his success at the plate -- he’s a lifetime .249 hitter in 11 seasons. Punto is a fine defender at second base and third base and is said to be a great teammate.
20. Ryan Sweeney
Previous ranking: 19
A gifted defender who came over from the A’s in the Andrew Bailey/Josh Reddick deal, Sweeney looks the part of a productive corner outfielder -- he’s 6-feet-4-inches, 220-pounds, and has a classic lefthanded swing. But the power potential hasn’t translated to the majors yet -- in parts of six seasons, he’s a .283 hitter, but with just 14 homers in 1,681 plate appearances. Manager Bobby Valentine has been candid in noting that Sweeney’s swing is mechanically flawed. Should hitting coach Dave Magadan help correct his flaws, the Sox could have a late-blooming find. At worst, he’s a capable fourth outfielder.
21. Kelly Shoppach
Previous ranking: 20
The veteran catcher is back with the organization that drafted him in the second round of the 2001 draft, and it’s in a role he should capably fill: a righthanded-hitting backup to Jarrod Saltalamacchia who can hit the occasional home run (he had 11 last year in 221 at-bats) and throw out more than the occasional base-stealer (a league-best 41 percent last year). But should he not get the job done, Ryan Lavarnway is just a quick drive up I-95 away.
22. Vicente Padilla
Previous ranking: 25
The 34-year-old Padilla, a winner of at least 12 games five times in his 13-year career, was a candidate for one of the back-of-the-rotation slots that went to Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard. But with a fastball that still hits the low ‘90s and a tantalizing slow curve, he has a chance to be an important contributor from the bullpen, provided he remains healthy.
23. Darnell McDonald
Previous ranking: Not ranked
The likeable reserve outfielder seemed to have a tenuous grip on a roster spot entering spring training following the offseason acquisitions of Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney. But Carl Crawford’s wrist injury opened up an opportunity, and McDonald, who spent more than a decade in the minors before making the most of a shot with the 2010 Red Sox, took advantage of his chance this spring, hitting .472 with two homers.
24. Matt Albers
Previous ranking: 23
The 29-year-old righthander trailed only Alfredo Aceves and Daniel Bard in relief innings among Red Sox pitchers last year, which may be one reason why he faltered late (2.55 ERA in the first half, an abysmal 7.36 in the second half). He should be a capable veteran arm in the middle innings, but if his difficult spring (5.40 ERA) carries over to the regular season, the likes of Scott Atchison and Junichi Tazawa could get a shot at some of his innings.
25. Andrew Miller
Previous ranking: 21
The lanky lefty showed flashes of the ability that made him the sixth pick in the 2006 draft, ahead of the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, and his North Carolina and Red Sox teammate, Bard. But the final numbers -- 5.54 ERA, 121 baserunners allowed in 65 innings -- are telling. At age 26, he’s still a work in progress and he’s likely to begin the season on the disabled list. If you want to put Aaron Cook or Fort Myers sensation Pedro Ciriaco in this spot, you won’t get an argument here.
Dropped out: from the pre-spring training version: Bobby Jenks (No. 22); Jose Iglesias (No. 24)