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Paul Swydan | Statistically Thinking

Who should play where for Red Sox in 2015?

07/01/14: Boston, MA: Brock Holt, left, Jackie Bradley, Jr., center, and Mookie Betts, right, became the first three rookies to start a game together in the outfield (before September 1st callups) since Todd Benzinger, Ellis Burks and Mike Greenwell did it in 1987. They are shown during as pitching change chatting in center field. The Boston Red Sox hosted the Chicago Cubs in an inter league MLB game at Fenway Park. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff) section: sports topic: Red Sox-Cubs (1)

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Brock Holt (left), Jackie Bradley Jr. (center), and Mookie Betts all played outfield for the Red Sox in 2014, but face stiff competition for the spots this season.

As you may know, the Red Sox have a bit of a roster crunch. The team has 23 position players on its 40-man roster.

This isn’t overly odd, but it is the most in the division (the Orioles and Rays have 19 position players on their 40-man roster and the Blue Jays and Yankees have 17). What is notable about the Red Sox’s situation is that most of those 23 have major league experience – only prospects Sean Coyle, Travis Shaw, and Blake Swihart have yet to make their major league debuts.

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With only 13 spots available to these players – maybe 14 if the team chooses to carry just 11 pitchers – something will have to give. Let’s take a look at how the pieces could fit.

Before we get into specific plans, there are six roster spots accounted for – two catchers (Christian Vazquez and Dan Butler/Swihart), designated hitter David Ortiz, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, and free agent acquisitions Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Every team needs two catchers, Ortiz and Pedroia are Boston institutions, and Ramirez and Sandoval weren’t signed to be traded.

RELATED: What are best choices for Red Sox on pitching market?

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In parsing the best fit for the other seven roster spots, we want to take into account the batter’s handedness, defensive position(s) played, contract status, and his expected performance (in the form of statistical projections). Speaking of defensive positions, let’s familiarize with the defensive positions each player has played in the past three seasons. For simplicity, we’re going to remove Sean Coyle, Travis Shaw, Bryce Brentz, and Garin Cecchini from the equation. All four are unlikely to crack the lineup without major injuries occurring.

Luke Knox/Globe Staff

The team has a lot of options. Nearly every position is double or triple-covered, especially if Jemile Weeks can play third base. As such, there are a few ways the team could choose to play things. The first is the most obvious – try to win now at all costs. The Sox have lurched between first and last place pretty wildly as of late. Last season didn’t go down as bitterly as 2012 did, but on the heels of a World Series championship in 2013, the 2014 collapse certainly wasn’t expected. The instant remedy would be to air everything out in pursuit of a 2015 World Series trophy.

In signing Ramirez and Sandoval, they’ve taken a large step in that direction. The team still needs more starting pitching, which we’ve already covered, but that’s outside of our scope for the moment. The problem is that selling all of the kids or leaving them in the minors leaves the team with Shane Victorino or Yoenis Cespedes playing center field, and that’s probably not a tenable solution. While they both can play center and have in recent seasons, they would be a liability there.

RELATED: Which players should Red Sox trade? Here’s a guide

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Conversely, the team could try to keep all the young players in the lineup. While the Red Sox have tons of major league talent on the 40-man roster, most of it is veteran talent. As such, perhaps Sox management wants the team to keep nurturing the young talent on hand in the majors at all costs.

This too would be shortsighted. With Sandoval in the fold, there simply is no place for Middlebrooks and Cecchini, and the team is better off having a player behind Sandoval who is comfortable in a part-time role than someone with legitimate designs on being a full-time starter who chafes at being held to five or six at-bats per week.

The best setup will meld these two approaches to give the team not only a great fit for the 2015 squad but also give them trade chips with which to acquire much needed starting pitching:

Catcher:Christian Vazquez
1B:Mike Napoli
2B:Dustin Pedroia
3B:Pablo Sandoval
SS:Xander Bogaerts
LF:Hanley Ramirez
CF:Mookie Betts
RF:Allen Craig
DH:David Ortiz
Bench:Jackie Bradley Jr., Daniel Nava, Jemile Weeks, Dan Butler/Blake Swihart

It’s almost inevitable that the team’s starting lineup is going to list to the right, and here we have seven righties, one lefty and one switch hitter (Sandoval). So, it’s crucial that the bench bats have some flexibility, and Bradley, Nava and Weeks all are either switch hitters or hit from the left side.

Weeks gets the nod over Holt for two reasons. First, Holt’s breakout season gives him a modicum of trade value. Second, Weeks did show improvement last season. He cut down his strikeouts both in Triple-A and the majors, and Steamer projects him to have the same wOBA (weighted on-base average, scaled similar to on-base percentage) as Holt next season.

Not listed above is Rusney Castillo, who in this scenario would spend his season in the minors. After he signed last year, he only played 11 minor league games in a whirlwind tour of the minors before playing 10 more games in the majors. He actually did great during that time, but 21 games shouldn’t color our view, especially when most projections have him being poor offensively in 2015. The most prudent plan is one where he gets 100-200 at-bats at Triple-A before re-evaluating.

Cespedes and Victorino are also not listed. While Cespedes can be used to acquire pitching, the same may not be true of Victorino, at least not during the offseason. It’s likely that teams will want Victorino to make it through at least spring training – if not the first month of the season – to see how his back holds up following his surgery. As such, his omission is the toughest.

Assuming good health for all, there is one way the team could keep Craig and Victorino around, and that is to trade Mike Napoli. This would shift Craig to first base, leaving right field for Victorino. The reason this might not be tenable is because Napoli signed a below-market deal to stay with Boston, and it could be seen as bad form for the Sox to trade him now. All’s fair in business, but the gravity of the situation would likely give the team pause.

Ultimately, of the three veteran outfielders – Cespedes, Craig and Victorino – Craig has to be given the highest priority for staying. He has experience in both the infield and outfield, he has a team-friendly contract (he is owed just $25.5 million from 2015-2017, whereas the older Nick Markakis just signed a deal with an average annual value that equates to $33 million during that time), he is younger than Victorino and is forecasted to hit better next year – Steamer’s projections have Craig posting a .340 wOBA and Victorino at .327.

Boston Red Sox's Yoenis Cespedes reacts as he takes a swinging strike in a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

AP

Yoenis Cespedes hit .269 in 51 games for the Red Sox last season.

His projection, in fact, is just shy of Cespedes, who is projected at a .347 wOBA for 2015. Objectively, Victorino only has an edge over Craig defensively, and with his back injury that advantage may become moot. Cespedes nominally has a health advantage over Craig, who is recovering from a foot injury, but Cespedes has had his share of ailments – he has only avoided the disabled list in one of his three major league seasons.

The best scenario going forward would be for the Red Sox to unload Cespedes, Holt, Middlebrooks, Victorino, and possibly Cecchini in the quest for more starting pitching. Cespedes and Holt have legitimate trade value for a team trying to contend in 2015. Middlebrooks and Victorino are intriguing despite poor 2014 seasons, and Cecchini is just plain intriguing.

Choosing this foursome to jettison will leave the Red Sox with a starting lineup heavy on right-handed hitters and a bench that lists left, giving the team flexibility in pinch-hitting situations.

It will give them a balance of established big leaguers and youngsters who still have to prove themselves.

It will give them a bench with players who are likely to be more accepting of their roles.

Given how much talent the team has, keeping 14 position players is tempting, but given the pitching staff’s current lack of quality, they may need the extra roster spot, and as such hard decisions are going to be necessary. Most of them will lead to an offense that is one of the best in baseball.

No matter how the team proceeds, this offseason is shaping up as a fascinating one.

Related:

Red Sox hope Xander Bogaerts follows same route as Hanley Ramirez

 David Ortiz hopeful Jon Lester returns to Red Sox

 On Baseball: Market for Jon Lester exploding

Paul Swydan is a writer and editor for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter at @Swydan.
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