FORT MYERS, Fla. — Triston Casas sought an emergency meeting with a council of his elders on Feb. 26.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora had positioned Casas atop the order for an exhibition game against the Rays. Cora described the alignment as one without significance beyond that day — “just throwing you a bone,” he chuckled to reporters — but Casas treated the role with purpose.
Casas had literally never led off a game in his life. Unable to draw upon personal experience, he turned to a pair of Red Sox legends — one with 140 career big-league starts as a leadoff hitter (Dwight Evans) and another with, well, none (Jim Rice).
Ultimately, Casas identified his own approach as one that fit naturally into the opening plate appearance of the game.
“That first at-bat I think is huge. I felt it in that game. I felt like I could set the tone in the at-bat and really expose a pitcher’s repertoire,” Casas recalled. “I think I have a good idea of what I want to do in the leadoff spot. I’ve never done it, but I’ve paid attention to enough guys to know what to do.”
On Wednesday, Cora once again discussed the possibility of using the 23-year-old rookie in a leadoff role. This time, there were no suggestions of playfulness.
Mookie Betts is long gone. So, for that matter, is Kyle Schwarber. In recent offseasons, the Red Sox did not pursue players such as George Springer or Brandon Nimmo. The Sox do not have a player with a career-long track record as a leadoff hitter.
Given their current personnel, why not have Casas there at least occasionally?
The rookie is emerging as part of an expected leadoff mix, particularly against righties. Cora identified Kiké Hernández, Christian Arroyo, and Rob Refsnyder as options for the first at-bat of the game against lefties, and Alex Verdugo and Casas as possibilities against righties. (Masataka Yoshida, viewed entering camp as a potential top-of-the-order fit, is likelier to hit between third and fifth.)
“We haven’t had a real leadoff guy since Mookie left,” said Cora. “You can ask all the coaches who the leadoff guy is and they can give you 10 different answers, but [Casas] is a guy that at certain times will do that because of who he is and what he can do.”
Casas defies traits of the traditional leadoff hitter. He’s a powerful, lumbering presence more often characteristic of the heart of the order than the top of it.
Yet traditional templates for the leadoff role have been shattered. Modern lineup construction is less focused on optics and physical stature than with getting a team’s best hitters to the plate as often as possible in an effort to score as many runs as possible.
“Not to compare them, but we see Aaron Judge leading off. Schwarber, for us at one point,” said Red Sox hitting coach Pete Fatse. “I think we’re just in an age where it’s about getting on-base and converting runs. Whoever is going to put us in a position to do that that night, that’s who we want in that spot.”
Both last September and this spring, Casas has appeared capable of fulfilling that charge. Despite hitting .197 in his first big league callup in 2022, Casas posted a .358 on-base — well above the MLB-wide .320 OBP from the leadoff spot and the Red Sox’ emetic .295 mark.
His 20.0 percent walk rate ranked third among big leaguers with at least 50 plate appearances. He worked pitchers like no other member of the team, averaging 4.29 pitches per plate appearance. Early in counts, he looked for mistakes he could drive before shifting to a more contact-oriented approach with two strikes.
“I want to get on base,” said Casas. “I don’t need to try to force power to really display it. So I feel like my skill set does fit in the leadoff spot. I feel like I can grind an at-bat. I can get on base. I can jump ship. It just depends on the situation, depends on the conditions as well. But I think the versatility of my game plays in all parts of the lineup.”
His performance this spring is selling the Sox on that point, including an impressive show Tuesday against the Tigers. Casas, batting second, singled on the 11th pitch of an at-bat in the first inning, smashed a first-pitch double to right in the second, smoked a grounder (111 miles per hour exit velocity) on the sixth pitch of his third at-bat, then finished his day by negotiating an eight-pitch walk.
Casas followed that performance by going 1-for-3 on Wednesday, leaving him with a gaudy .382/.432/.647 line in exhibition games. He’s been patient when pitchers nibble and aggressive when they work over the plate.
“He swings at the right ones and takes the right ones,” said Cora.
The quality of those decisions has been good enough to prompt the Sox to think about how to maximize both the number of times Casas gets to bat and the lineup position from which he can make his greatest impact. For the rookie, as he prepares for his first full season, any and every assignment is welcome.
“I’m going to get plenty of opportunities wherever I am,” said Casas. “I feel like I’m going to do damage and get on base regardless of if I’m [batting] one or seven.”