FORT MYERS, Fla. — Red Sox hitting coach Greg Colbrunn doesn’t have a recipe for a new leadoff hitter. What he knows is that this powerful lineup that produced a league-best 853 runs in 2013 will look different, but not necessarily worse.
He can’t mix Shane Victorino with Dustin Pedroia and a little Grady Sizemore and come up with another Jacoby Ellsbury. Not possible. The speed, the disruptive nature of Ellsbury’s game, that’s gone.
“Of course we’ll miss Jacoby,” David Ortiz said. “Nobody in the game could do what he did. Now we have to find a way to make up for that some way. I think we have guys on the team that can lead off and make our lineup work. We’ll see.”
Manager John Farrell sees Victorino as the first choice. He also has mentioned Daniel Nava, who had a .385 on-base percentage last year but whose lack of speed makes him an unorthodox candidate.
If Victorino is in the No. 1 spot, you can see a lineup that continues with Pedroia, Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Nava, Xander Bogaerts, A.J. Pierzynski, Will Middlebrooks, and Jackie Bradley.
Of course, there could be variations of this theme.
If Sizemore makes the team and starts in center, he could be another possible leadoff man, though his power might make him more suited for the middle of the order.
Nava may emerge simply because he’s one of the best situational hitters on the team. Colbrunn raves about Nava, who hit .303 to go along with the high OBP.
“People didn’t hear too much about it, but he would change his at-bats depending on the situation in the game,” said Colbrunn. “If we needed a base runner, he’d work the count. If he was up there with runners on and the first pitch was right there, he’d swing.
“He does a great job on when to be aggressive, work the count, who’s out there. Nava is one of the smartest hitters we have.”
Colbrunn loved the approach of his hitters last season, so even without Ellsbury, he’s not going to ask anyone to do anything different. As far as Colbrunn is concerned, Farrell likely will mix and match depending on whom they’re facing that day.
“We had some different guys lead off last year when Jacoby was out, so we’ve got some experience there,” said Colbrunn. “It may not look the same but it doesn’t mean it won’t be as effective.”
Ellsbury accounted for 92 of those 853 runs, fifth among leadoff hitters. But the excitement he brings, the pressure on the pitcher, and his defense are gone.
“I think we’ve always been able to find a way to adjust,” Pedroia said. “Jacoby’s a talented player and a big loss, but we have good base runners and people who can steal bases. We’ll still have our share of steals, but it may spread out a little more than it has in the past.”
Farrell never really has listed Pedroia among the candidates for the leadoff spot, but Pedroia wouldn’t be kicking and screaming if that’s what had to be.
“I’ve been a leadoff hitter most of my life,” Pedroia said. “It wasn’t until 2008 that I started hitting lower in the order. I led off some last year when Jacoby was out, so it’s something I could do if they asked me.”
Victorino, who was the No. 2 hitter most of the year while he was healthy, said recently that he won’t change his approach if he leads off. The only current mystery is whether he continues to be a switch hitter or hits solely righthanded as he did last season.
“You’ll have to wait and see the answer to that,” said Victorino, who was forced to abandon batting lefty because of a hamstring injury. “I’m not telling that yet.”
“If I lead off, I’m not going to change anything. I swing the way I swing and I do what I do,” said Victorino, who hit .194 in eight starts at the leadoff spot. “The worst thing you can do is change your approach. It’s hard enough to do it the way that feels most comfortable.”
Victorino said hitting behind Ellsbury had its pluses and minuses. The plus side was seeing more fastballs; the minus side was the distraction of the pitcher throwing over to first base.
Here’s another thing about Victorino: The league average for base-on-balls percentage was 8.9; Ortiz led the Red Sox at 12.7 percent followed by Napoli at 12.6, but Victorino was just 4.7 percent, so he doesn’t walk a lot.
The Red Sox don’t want to create pressure on either Sizemore or Bradley, for entirely different reasons. Both are suited for the top spot because they have above-average speed and have been high on-base guys.
But Sizemore is coming off multiple knee surgeries. He eventually became a middle-of-the-order hitter for the Indians.
The Red Sox have tried to ease Bradley into the lineup and think he eventually can enter the mix for leadoff. But for now he seems better-suited for the bottom of the order, where he would be the speed element.
Colbrunn may be getting two rookies ready in Bogaerts and Bradley. Both have organizational training in grinding out at-bats and getting on base, so the philosophy won’t be different to them.
“The strength of our team was guys grinding out solid at-bats,” Colbrunn said. “Xander showed that in the postseason. He had some great at-bats.”
Breaking that mold is Pierzynski, who saw the fewest pitches per at-bat last season (3.2). He swung at 60.2 percent of the pitches he saw, the highest rate in the majors.
“A.J. is an aggressive hitter,” said Colbrunn. “He came from a lineup last year that was very aggressive.
“Again, we’re not going to change anything. This is what gives A.J. comfort and the success he’s had at the plate. We’re not going to try to change what comes naturally to him.”
While Napoli wants to reduce his strikeouts from the team-record 187 he had last season, Colbrunn thought Napoli got better the last two months of the season.
“We don’t want to take away what Mike does best — sees more pitches than anyone,” Colbrunn said. “That’s what makes him so effective. So if we can find a way to reduce the strikeouts without taking away his patience at the plate, we’ll do it.”
Another project is Middlebrooks, who Colbrunn thinks has 30-plus home run power.
“We’re stressing consistency,” Colbrunn said. “Have a game plan up there and stick with it. Don’t deviate from it. Come in every day whether you’re going well or not going well, and grind it out. Don’t deviate. That will reduce the down times and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”
Yes, it will be a little different.