Assuming an epic collapse a la 2011 doesn't happen, the 2013 Boston Red Sox will treat their fans to the team's first postseason berth since 2009.
After several tumultuous seasons at Fenway, the Red Sox sit at 92-59, with a 9.5 game lead atop the second-place Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East.
With the top-scoring offense, a pitching staff composed of four formidable starters in Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Jake Peavy and John Lackey, and a bullpen anchored by the otherworldly Koji Uehara, the Red Sox have spent most of the season dominating the rest of the league.
But as any baseball fan knows, October is a completely different animal. The midseason matchups against punching bags like the Houston Astros and Toronto Blue Jays are replaced by epic showdowns against the Detroit Tigers or Oakland Athletics.
Boston has all the pieces to compete against any other team in the league, but they must optimize the personnel they have in order to do so. Let's take a look at the ideal batting order manager John Farrell can post when the calendar turns.
1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
Stats: .299/.355/.424, 31 2B, 8 3B, 8 HR, 52 RBI, 89 R, 52 SB, 5.5 WAR
Unfortunately, Ellsbury has missed the past seven games with a fractured right foot, but he has been working his way toward an imminent return. Assuming the optimistic reports pan out, the Red Sox will have a 50-plus base stealer in their leadoff spot who gets on base at a .355 rate.
Because of the Red Sox's depth, a setback to Ellsbury would not be as devastating as it might be to another team. They can easily move Shane Victorino to play in center and insert a platoon of Mike Carp and Jonny Gomes. Or they could put Jackie Bradley Jr. on the postseason roster but given his recent struggles he's done nothing to deserve such designation.
2. Shane Victorino, RF
Stats: .294/.352/.454, 29 2B, 2 3B, 14 HR, 58 RBI, 79 R, 21 SB, 5.8 WAR
Shane Victorino is one of the unsung heroes of this Boston lineup.
The 32-year-old has been a crucial contributor to the Red Sox batting order all season long. Along with Ellsbury, Victorino provides his team with speed and skill atop its lineup, which has been pivotal in Boston's league-leading offense.
Along with his great numbers, Victorino has brought a healthy dose of leadership to the clubhouse. He has been known as a very positive, charismatic teammate from his time with the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Red Sox are now reaping those benefits. His hard play and great attitude have been huge contributors to the team's success. It's tough to quantify the effect of a player like that, but Red Sox fans know all too well the repercussions of holding the alternative.
3. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
Stats: .297/.32/.409, 39 2B, 2 3B, 8 HR, 80 RBI, 85 R, 17 SB, 5.7 WAR
Ideally, Dustin Pedroia is a prototypical No. 2 hitter. Usually batting third in the order is the all-around best hitter on the team, meaning that he can get on base, as well as hit for some pop.
While Pedroia's eight home runs and .409 slugging percentage don't quite live up to expectations for 3-hole hitters, the second baseman has done fine in the role.
Despite the eight home runs, Pedroia has regularly flashed his gap power, smashing 39 doubles this season. He has also been able to both score and drive in runs, as he has scored 85 this season and driven in another 80.
He might not possess the same speed as Ellsbury or Victorino, but Pedroia's 17 stolen bases show that he is a solid base runner and someone who can cause a pitcher headaches when he is occupying a base.
Of course, the offense Pedroia brings to the table is just part of the story. The pair of Gold Gloves displayed in his trophy case are just a couple testaments to the strong defense Pedroia provides in the middle of the diamond.
Like Victorino, Pedroia is a player whose true value cannot be determined purely by analyzing his stat sheet. Pedroia is the heart of the Red Sox, and his notorious intensity and competitiveness have certainly rubbed off on some of his teammates this season.
4. David Ortiz, DH
Stats: .311/.397/.564, 36 2B, 2 3B, 27 HR, 94 RBI, 76 R, 4 SB, 4.1 WAR
Any praise of the Red Sox's longtime designated hitter feels stale at this point. It will suffice to say that short of the Miguel Cabreras of the world, there is no better hitter to slot into the cleanup spot than David Ortiz.
Though Ortiz missed the first three weeks of the regular season, the 37-year-old is right on the fringe of crowning 2013 another 30-homer, 100-RBI season.
Ortiz has been the cornerstone of two championship offenses, and before two months have passed, he might be a key cog of a third title.
5. Mike Napoli, 1B
Stats: .262/.357/.485, 36 2B, 2 3B, 22 HR, 89 RBI, 77 R, 1 SB, 3.6 WAR
Mike Napoli has been a great 5-hole hitter this season; his 22 home runs, 36 doubles and 89 RBI attest to that. To have a dangerous right-handed power bat protecting Ortiz in the order is crucial, and Napoli has filled that role perfectly.
The biggest downside with Napoli is his high strikeout rates. In just 132 games this season, Napoli has been punched out 178 times. Despite finding himself so often the victim of the strikeout, Napoli has forced pitchers to work to get him out. Napoli leads the majors in average pitches seen per at-bat with 4.58.
The unfortunate thing about Napoli is the fact that he will likely not start if the Red Sox make it to the World Series and play in NL ballparks. Without the designated hitter, manager John Farrell will most likely play Ortiz at first base and save Napoli for a pinch-hitting role, if need be.
6. Daniel Nava, LF
Stats: .306/.392/.452, 28 2B, 0 3B, 11 HR, 63 RBI, 69 R, 0 SB, 2.6 WAR
If there is a Red Sox fan who does not respect Daniel Nava, I have yet to meet him. His well-chronicled road to the big leagues has shown fans Nava's incredible pertinacity and diligence.
Fortunately, the 30-year-old has given Sox fans plenty to cheer about other than his underdog story.
The left fielder has made 2013 into a career-year. His triple-slash rates of .306/.392/.452 look more like stats an all-star might post rather than a journeyman.
Though Nava is a switch-hitter, he is much stronger from the right side of the plate. Against lefties, he has popped nine of his 11 home runs and driven in 50 of his 63 RBI. His triple-slash rates from the left side drop off to .248/.314/.343 from .326/.417/.489 from the right side.
The Red Sox are in the enviable position of being able to avoid having Nava bat left-handed because on the bench they have lefty Mike Carp. Carp is batting .306 on the season and has blasted 9 home runs, making him a good option to start when facing right-handed pitching.
7. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
Stats: .263/.333/.452, 36 2B, 0 3B, 13 HR, 59 RBI, 61 R, 3 SB, 2.3 WAR
Many Red Sox fans (including this author) have warmed up to Jarrod Saltalamacchia over the course of the 2013 season. Entering the campaign, Saltalamacchia was coming off a 2012 in which he crushed 25 home runs, but drove in just 59 runs, and supplied his team with an unacceptable batting average of .222 and a substandard .288 on-base percentage.
The catcher has lost a little of his home run pop, but through that loss he has gained a lot. Now his home runs total just 13, but his batting average is up to a respectable .263 and a passable .333 on-base percentage. The power has not cost him anything in the ways of run production, as he has already matched the 59 RBI he compiled in 2012, and he has scored 61 runs himself (he scored 55 in 2012). Additionally, the 17 doubles he sent sailing last year have increased to a whopping 36.
Saltalamacchia has improved as a game caller this season, as well. When he is catching, pitchers post an ERA of 3.84, just a hair worse than Boston's 3.77 team ERA. His throwing is still not great, as he has caught just 21.5 percent of potential base stealers, but even that number is slightly swollen from the 18 percent he threw out last season.
8. Stephen Drew, SS
Stats: .247/.328/.432, 27 2B, 6 3B, 12 HR, 62 RBI, 51 R, 4 SB, 2.2 WAR
Seeing that the last Drew (J.D. Drew, Stephen's elder brother) was far from a fan favorite, it seemed odd that Stephen Drew should chose to wear the same number seven that his brother sported during his time in Boston.
Maybe seven really is a lucky number, because the Red Sox certainly lucked out with the production they've been getting from Drew.
After a slow start, which can be partially attributed to Drew's lack of spring training action, Drew has been quite a nice surprise for the team.
While neither his line of .247/.328/.432 nor his twelve home runs will blow anyone away, those numbers are more than sufficient for a bottom of the order shortstop. He has been remarkably good at creating runs, scoring 50 himself, while driving in another 62. Those 62 RBI rank him third among AL shortstops behind just J.J. Hardy and Jed Lowrie.
Drew has also been an asset with the glove. While his 0.5 defensive WAR doesn't exactly elicit excitement, he has played the position nearly error-free, as he currently sports a .985 fielding percentage, fourth among major league shortstops.
It would be remiss to omit the clutch performances Drew has given Boston. He has become a player Red Sox fans have come to trust in close-and-late situations, as he has come through time and time again when it counts most.
In Drew, the Red Sox have a very solid shortstop. That the ideal positioning for him in this lineup is eighth simply shows the depth of this batting order, not any flaws in Drew's game.
9. Will Middlebrooks, 3B
Stats: .231/.278/.433, 17 2B, 0 3B, 15 HR, 85 RBI, 76 R, 2 SB, 0.1 WAR
At the beginning of the season, the prospect of Will Middlebrooks batting in the middle of Boston's order seemed to promise a productive power bat from the right side.
The season was a little more tumultuous for the 25-year-old third baseman than anticipated, as he compiled a pedestrian triple-slash line of .201/.234/.408 over his first 46 games. Middlebrooks was able to knock eight homers and 12 doubles in that span, but the low on-base percentage and high strikeout numbers (54 strikeouts during that period) really limited him from being the contributor many had hoped.
Despite those early struggles, Middlebrooks has regained his former promise. After a stint with Triple-A Pawtucket, Middlebrooks was recalled to the big league team on August 10, and has looked like a different player ever since.
During the 31 games since that when Middlebrooks has played, the third baseman posted far superior numbers to those he accumulated earlier in the season. His triple-slash line is an impressive .308/.371/.519 since his promotion, and his strikeouts come less frequently (25 strikeouts in those 31 games).
Despite his inconsistencies at the plate, Middlebrooks offers the Red Sox a fantastic hitter to plug into their 9-hole. He has the potential to drive in any ducks on the pond, as well as the on-base ability to set the stage for the top of the order.
Xander Bogaerts, the 20-year-old shortstop and sometime third baseman, is another candidate for this spot. Bogaerts has given too erratic production for the Red Sox to entrust him with an everyday spot in their batting order, but he can come in handy as a matchup guy or as a pinch hitter.
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