If any player deserves the title of “Heart & Soul Of The Boston Red Sox” it is second baseman Dustin Pedroia. You can go back to the beginning of last season, when the Red Sox had started 0-6, and played their home opener with John Lackey on the mound (what a punishment that had to have been for the Fenway Faithful). Pedroia came up with a huge game and helped get the win, get two out of three for the series and eventually set the stage for an 81-42 run through the summer. Pedroia’s leadership isn’t omnipotent—he wasn’t able to shut down the Fenway Fried Chicken outlets that turned that 81-42 win into the biggest September collapse baseball has ever seen—but nor was he a stockholder in what was apparently Boston’s most prosperous food chain last fall. With his team facing a transition year, Pedroia’s leadership will be badly needed in 2012.
At the very least, Sox fans know what they can expect from their second baseman by the numbers. He’ll clock in with an on-base percentage in the neighborhood of .370, be a reliable two-hole hitter behind Jacoby Ellsbury and have the flexibility to drop into the middle of the lineup. While power is not a guarantee, Pedroia has posted slugging percentages in the high .400s three of the last four years, including his MVP year of 2008.
What the Red Sox have a hard time is turning the quality of their second baseman into a big competitive advantage in the AL East, because quality reigns at this spot. Let’s take a look at Pedroia’s fellow second baseman in the division…
NY Yanks: Robinson Cano—Is he or Pedroia the better ballplayer? Cano’s transformed himself into a muscle man, hitting 25-30 home runs a year each of the last three seasons and it looks like he’ll hit third when the seasons starts this year. He’s a .300 hitter, but his lack of plate discipline keep his OBP’s a good twenty points behind Pedroia. Take either player and you get an All-Star and MVP candidate. It’s probably just a question of whose offensive skill set meshes with a particular team’s lineup that would determine who you’d want.
Tampa Bay: Ben Zobrist—He’s the microcosm of the Ray. Deserves to be in the discussion with the Yankee and Red Sox players, but has to fight for every scrap of attention, and even if he’s actually better, still has to start over anew with the media in spring. Zobrist has become a good power hitter, with 20+ home runs in two of the last three years, and his OBP soared to .405 last year. While repeating that might be tough, even if he settles in at .375 and keeps the power going, he could be the best in the division.
Toronto: Kelly Johnson—The Blue Jays are banking on the notion that they’ll get the player who was the National League’s best at his position in 2010 with Arizona, not the one who was hideous in 2011. While his ’10 numbers of .370 OBP and 26 home runs might not repeat themselves, he does play a good defensive game and if just the OBP comes back, it will be enough to make Johnson an asset.
Baltimore: Robert Andino—I know the Orioles are hoping for a comeback from Brian Roberts, who was good as Pedroia or Cano in his heyday, but I suspect the back problems and advancing age are going to keep Roberts out of the lineup, and at the very least, his All-Star caliber days are gone by the board. Andino is a nice young player, but he needs to improve his .263 batting average and allow some decent plate discipline to work with that and produce a good OBP.
Who’s the best of the group? Pedroia and Cano are even-up, and it’s anybody’s guess (or preference, based on OBP or power). Zobrist is the tough call. On the one hand, he’s a converted outfielder and not as good defensively at a key spot. On other hand…well, he’s a converted outfielder and has the positional flexibility that comes with that, something Joe Maddon surely appreciate as the long baseball summers wear on. Johnson is like Toronto—not bad, but a clear fourth. Andino is like Baltimore—a nice young prospect, you’d like to see him do better, but you really have to see more before you move him up the ladder. Perhaps no position mirrors the overall standings better than that of second base in the AL East. If that holds true again, Pedroia’s leadership and production are going to again be a huge determining factor in the division race.