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2012 Red Sox Preview: Infielders

Left to right: Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis highlight the 2012 Red Sox among the infielders and DH. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images North America)

The stink of Super Bowl XLVI has finally cleared. The ancient Celtics are limping through a season sabotaged by the lockout. The Bruins look stuck in a rut.

So let’s talk Red Sox! Starting this week and continuing throughout Spring Training, Sports of Boston will preview the entire roster of the 2012 Red Sox. We’ll kick things off with the infield and designated hitter, who last season provided most of the pop on the league’s top-ranked offense.

Corner Infielders

Adrian Gonzalez will start at first base come April. He tied for the league-lead in hits last year with 213, came in second with a .338 batting average and ranked among the top 10 in RBIs (117, fifth), doubles (45, sixth), on-base percentage (.410, sixth), and OPS (.957, seventh). Dismissing any preseason fears of an NL hitter struggling at Fenway, Gonzalez set personal-bests in hits and OBP while playing Gold Glove-winning first base.

Some analysts say Gonzalez faltered in September, leading to the Red Sox’s historic collapse, but the numbers don’t back up that claim. Gonzalez is an absolute game-changer with maybe the most beautiful swing in baseball.

Kevin Youkilis, meanwhile, starts at third. Injuries have limited Youkilis the last two seasons, knocking his total games from 135+ from 2006-2009 to 120 and 102 since 2010. Those absences have likely affected his sense of pitch-location, something once so strong it earned a two-page spread in Michael Lews’ Moneyball.

When he’s healthy, Youkilis is an athletic third baseman with tremendous plate-discipline. He’s just as capable of hitting a home run as he is drawing a walk. He’s also adaptable, able to hit in different lineup spots and move to first base (where he won a Gold Glove in 2007) without sacrificing success.

Though Youkilis is the Red Sox’s main backup at first, they also have Lars Anderson for blowouts. Anderson did well at AA Portland, less so at AAA Pawtucket, and even less so with the Red Sox. In 24 total major league games, he’s gone 7-for-40 with just a double. Hard to imagine the Red Sox using him in meaningful situations unless everyone better is hurt.

Right now the backups for Youkilis at third are Nick Punto and Will Middlebrooks. Punto played for the Cardinals last season, but his seven seasons with the Twins give him plenty of AL experience. While not a power threat by any stretch, his .388 on-base percentage and .809 OPS – Punto’s best full-season numbers – might make him valuable in the bottom third of the lineup. Plus, he can also play second base and shortstop.

Middlebrooks has no major league experience, batting .161 with two home runs and eight RBIs while fielding at a .917 clip in 16 games at AAA. He could easily be gone by Opening Day.

Middle Infielders

Dustin Pedroia headlines the middle infielders, having in 2011 set several career-bests, including home runs, RBIs and on-base percentage. Pedroia also won his second Gold Glove, playing second base with the kind of down-and-dirty attitude that Red Sox fans love. If Pedroia’s grit and feistiness spread to his teammates, they’ll win games. If not, they could easily suffer another late-season swoon.

Oscar Tejeda is the only other second baseman currently on the roster. Tejeda spent the entire 2011 season as AA, batting .249 with five home runs and 41 RBIs. His 13 stolen bases and .949 fielding percentage suggest he has some speed, so he might stay on the major league roster as a pinch runner.

Mid-season trade Mike Aviles and uber-prospect Jose Iglesias will battle in March for the starting shortstop job. Aviles batted .318 and played error-free defense in 38 games last season, but most scouts (and certain major league shortstops) consider Iglesias the Red Sox’s shortstop of the future. He had two hits – both singles – in six plate appearances last season. He also struck out twice and scored three runs, including an extra-innings game-winner back in May.

Iglesias still needs to learn plate discipline, averaging fewer than three pitchers per major league at-bat last season. But if management decides he’s better served playing at AAA than watching from the major league bench, he’ll just have to learn patience.

Designated Hitter

David Ortiz returns for his 10th season at DH. At 36, Ortiz’s abilities should start declining, but so far they haven’t. Ortiz’s 2011 season was easily his best since 2007 in both power and average. Ortiz finished in the league’s top 10 for on-base, slugging and OPS. Whether or not someone who only hits is worth $14.575 million, AL teams need a DH. And if last season is any indication, Ortiz is still the best DH in the business.

Next week: Catchers!

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