If the Red Sox move Mike Lowell in an effort to upgrade both their defense and their offensive production, as has been discussed in this space, it seems likely the Red Sox would target either Chone Figgins or Marco Scutaro to play third base.
The defensive upgrade is obvious. The offensive upgrade isn't quite so obvious -- particularly when you start to think about where they'd hit in the Red Sox lineup. Still, though: It's there. Check out how the three players stacked up this season:
Figgins: .298/.395/.393: 107 OPS+
Lowell: .290/.337/.474: 104 OPS+
Scutaro: .282/.379/.409: 109 OPS+
It's even more disparate if you look at them only on the road:
Figgins: .290/.387/.396: 116 OPS+
Lowell: .276/.331/.382: 96 OPS+
Scutaro: .322/.405/.429: 130 OPS+
Here's the issue, though: The Red Sox need a middle-of-the-order bat. Lowell is a No. 5 or No. 6 hitter in the Red Sox lineup. Neither Figgins nor Scutaro is No. 5 or No. 6 hitter. Neither Figgins nor Scutaro is a middle-of-the-order bat.
Both fit better as a leadoff hitter or a No. 2 hitter, and the Red Sox seem to have their leadoff hitter and No. 2 hitter entrenched in their lineup for next season -- and probably for five or six seasons beyond that. Hitting either one of them eighth or ninth, on the other hand, risks wasting the $20 million or more it might take to sign either of them.
You'd have to get creative.
You've have to bat Dustin Pedroia third in the lineup.
Check out the average numbers for an American League No. 3 hitter this season:
.274/.348/.457 (.805 OPS)
Check out the average numbers for Red Sox No. 3 hitters this year -- starting with David Ortiz but transitioning to Kevin Youkilis and Victor Martinez -- good for fourth-best in the American League:
.271/.364/.468 (.832 OPS)
Check out Pedroia's final line:
.296/.371/.447 (.819 OPS)
Check out his line if you eliminate his stint in the leadoff spot:
.311/.388/.470 (.858 OPS)
Pedroia almost certainly would be the smallest No. 3 hitter in the history of the Red Sox. He certainly would draw some snickers from elsewhere in the league.
But Pedroia is used to being too small, and he's used to hearing snickers from elsewhere. Those snickers, in fact, often motivate him as well as anything else.
He's also one of the best hitters in the American League and has all the tools -- except maybe home-run power -- to be the same quality of No. 3 hitter Victor Martinez would be. He also would create a top half of the lineup as ferocious as any in baseball.
Check out this hypothetical lineup:
Ellsbury, CF (.355 on-base percentage)
Figgins/Scutaro, 3B (.395/.379)
Pedroia, 2B (.371)
Youkilis, 1B (.413)
Martinez, C (.381)
Bay, LF (.384)
Drew, RF (.392)
Ortiz, DH (.332)
Gonzalez, SS (.279)
The Red Sox could bump Ellsbury back down to the bottom of the order where he spent a couple of months this season. It seems, though, that the Red Sox see Ellsbury as their best option as a leadoff hitter: They'd have left him down at the bottom of the order if that's where they saw his future.
Instead, if Ellsbury can keep developing -- his on-base percentage jumped from .336 to .355 this season -- the Red Sox could have a top lineup in which each of the first seven hitters has an on-base percentage miles beyond the league average (.336).
It's not just about hitting home runs.
It's about keeping the line moving.
The team that cherishes J.D. Drew knows that as well as any.