Joe Maddon has his beliefs. Not quite as colorful or (thankfully) as personal as Crash Davis in the classic Bull Durham monologue, but Maddon can offer up some interesting specifics of his own. Books, wines, travel, music, history and, deeper than anything else, baseball. One of the topics he'll be thinking more about as the Rays progress through spring training is structuring the batting order, toying with moving B.J. Upton to the leadoff slot in place of Akinori Iwamura and deciding where to best slot free agent slugger Pat Burrell. Maddon has some theories. He believes in balance, seeking to alternate right- and left-handed hitters as much as possible to force opponents to use their bullpen more.
He believes in flow, considering the AL lineup to be circular with the Nos. 8-9 hitters essentially the table-setters for the Nos. 1-2 hitters. He believes in fundamentals but will go against tradition, discarding the idea that the No. 2 hitter has to be an old-school bunt-'em-over type. He believes in protection, convinced it's more important who's behind the key hitter in the lineup than who's in front of him to "make sure your best guy is going to get pitched to in a crucial moment." And he believes in long, slow, deep … rallies? With Iwamura potentially not reporting to camp until late March due to the World Baseball Classic and Upton's status for the first week of the season uncertain due to offseason shoulder surgery, a final decision isn't needed anytime soon. But the conversations have already started.
Leading man …
The decision on the top spot is key to a lot of things, and neither choice is the prototypical leadoff hitter.
Iwamura led the Rays in hits and runs last season, and he increased his walks (to 70) and the number of pitches seen per plate appearance (4.14) to among the best among AL leadoff men. But he strikes out too much (his 130 matched Grady Sizemore for most among the leadoff crew) and doesn't steal much (eight times in 14 tries).
Of bigger concern is his .350 on-base percentage, which ranked only ninth among the 11 AL hitters with 450 or more plate appearances in the leadoff spot.
Upton strikes out even more (134, sixth most in the AL) and saw fewer pitches (4.06) than Iwamura (though it's hard to know how to weigh his 2008 stats given the extent of his shoulder injury).
But Upton offers some intriguing benefits. He has that rare combination of power and speed, creating that Rickey Henderson-like possibility of immediately impacting a game with a home run or on the bases.
And he gets on a lot, his .383 on-base percentage ranking ninth best in the league and his 97 walks ranking fourth.
If Maddon makes the switch, and at this point he says it's just among the things he's "considering," he'll have to talk it out. He'll want to be sure Upton is up for the assignment, and that Iwamura isn't too down about moving down in the order, since it will be big news in Japan, drawing questions about respect and pride.
For what it's worth, Iwamura is hitting ninth for the Japan WBC team and, according to Sankei Sports, told reporters: "I saw the ninth hitters get many runs in MLB. I have understood how important the ninth hitter is and the reason why the manager put me ninth."
Second to none
Whoever leads off, Carl Crawford appears likely to be on deck.
Though Maddon used Crawford in the middle of the order in the postseason, he said last week he is "looking" to put him back in his familiar, and comfortable, No. 2 spot. Which is exactly why Maddon doesn't need a traditional No. 2 hitter.
Not with the way Crawford hits and runs, and Maddon raves about his ability to drive in runs, especially in two-out situations, by keeping the ball on the ground and on a line rather than hitting a lot of fly balls.
"I'll hit wherever he wants me to hit," Crawford said.
"I like to hit second. Wherever I'll be most effective, I'll do my thing there. I'm more comfortable hitting at the top of the order because of the things I can do."
In some combination, the Rays are going to have three legitimate power hitters in the middle of their order. Nine years later, the Rays may have the real hit show: Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena and Pat Burrell, all legitimately capable of 30-plus homers, hitting back to back to back.
Maddon said adding Burrell, the right-power slugger they craved, changes the look of the lineup "dramatically."
If Upton and Crawford are first and second, a 3-4-5 of Longoria, Pena and Burrell would give Maddon the righty-lefty balance he likes and offer plenty of protection for Longoria.
If Iwamura stays at the top and Crawford is second (thus starting with back-to-back lefties), you might see Upton third, then a combo of Longoria, Pena and Burrell.
"Any way you stack it up," Longoria said, "I like our lineup."
The rest of the story
After the big boys, next is likely to be the rightfielder, which given the planned platoon of lefty Gabe Gross and righty Gabe Kapler is almost like having a switch-hitter. And then Maddon could use catcher Dioner Navarro, who is a switch-hitter.
If Upton is at the top, Iwamura could slide to eighth, with Jason Bartlett ninth. Or if Maddon believes in perfect symmetry, he could bat Bartlett eighth and Iwamura ninth.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.