Chronicling Red Sox Shortstops Since Nomar
Shortstop: Generally considered the most important defensive position in baseball aside from the pitcher-catcher battery. Responsible for a substantial amount of infield terrain, he chosen to man this position is looked to as the centerpiece of an infield.
Theo Epstein: Promoted from within the Red Sox organization, heralded as a boy wonder. Since taking the helm at General Manager in 2003, Epstein has been the face of a new era in Red Sox baseball — one that has featured 6 95-win seasons, 6 trips to the postseason, 4 ALCS appearances, and 2 World Series victories. Criticized probably too often for his edgy approach that emphasizes statistical analysis, in a results-based business, he’s produced ‘em.
These two entities, though, have not mixed well.
In a pattern more disturbing than that of the Defense Against the Dark Arts teaching position at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Epstein’s Red Sox have featured 7 shortstops that at one time laid claim to the starting role, and the 8th — Marco Scutaro – will be throwing his hat into the ring less than 2 weeks. I personally don’t know why it’s been so difficult for Boston to settle on one, but I will at least provide a comprehensive timeline of the revolving door at a position of importance.
In 2003, Nomar Garciaparra put up his last full Major League season as a shortstop. This was also the last full season in which Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez would be considered the “Holy Trinity” of Major League shortstops, with Nomar succumbing to injury the next few years and moving to first base when he finally found, for one season, health with the Dodgers. Rodriguez, meanwhile, would move next to Jeter on the diamond, when he became the Yankees’ third baseman the following year.
A Red Sox legend, Garciaparra put up his standard excellent season offensively, playing in 156 games and batting .301 with a .345 OBP and a .524 slugging percentage. He also managed to steal 19 bases and hit third for most of the season in an historically potent lineup. He also fielded fairly well, with defensive metrics saying that he saved the team 2 runs over the course of the season; given his offensive output, this was plenty acceptable.
Following the season, though, Garciaparra was the subject of a whirlwind of trade rumors, as the Sox were in hot pursuit of Rodriguez, willing to part with Manny Ramirez (and, many forget, a little-known pitching prospect by the name of Jon Lester) to acquire the shortstop that was regarded by many to be the best player in baseball. Garciaparra, who would reach free agency following the season and had already turned down a $60 million deal from the club, w0uld in a separate deal be swung to the Chicago White Sox for Magglio Ordonez, who would take Ramirez’s place in left field.
The deals fell through and Nomar’s relationship with the Red Sox was strained. To make matters worse, in Spring Training, Nomar suffered an Achiles tendon injury and opened the season on the disabled list. Pokey Reese served as the club’s shortstop for the opening two months in his stead and wowed teammates and fans alike with his much heralded defense. All the same, when Nomar returned in early June, the position was his, and he produced: in his 38 games with Boston in 2004, Garciaparra hit .321/.367/.500. The injury, though, forced him to take frequent days off, and it also had a very clear effect on his defense; over the course of a full season, Garciaparra would have cost the team almost 16 runs had he stuck around.
Seeing that the defense was hurting the team but also noting that Reese was simply putrid offensively, Epstein made an extremely bold move at the 2004 trade deadline, bringing in Orlando Cabrera (along with first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz of the Twins) from the Montreal Expos to fill his spot, shipping Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs. Cabrera immediately stepped in and won over the fans, playing remarkably steady defense and producing well enough offensively, posting a .785 OPS. The team, too, finally gelled and approached 100 wins as September rolled into October. A month later, as the starting shortstop on the first Red Sox team to win a World Series in 86 years, Cabrera was fully embraced by Red Sox Nation.
Cabrera was also a free agent. There were many compelling reasons to re-sign him: he had proven he could play under the pressure of Boston, he had developed fantastic chemistry with his teammates, and he had produced in his three month stay. There was however, a good reason not to.
Edgar Renteria, formerly of the Cardinals — and one of few who had played well in the World Series against Boston — was also on the market. Renteria had for years been recognized as a shortstop just below the quality of the Jeter-Rodriguez-Garciaparra oligarchy, and Epstein wanted him. In the December following the World Series victory, Renteria signed a 4 year deal with Boston worth $40 million. Cabrera went to the Angels for the same length and $32 million.
Renteria disappointed mightily in 2005. He committed 30 errors and his range evaporated. He was mediocre at best offensively and struggled hitting second in the lineup. Following the season, Epstein quickly gave up on what had once been an apple to his eye and traded him to the Atlanta Braves, along with a ton of cash in exchange for top prospect Andy Marte. Marte would later that offseason be the centerpiece of the trade that would bring Coco Crisp to Boston.
Following the horrible defensive play of Renteria and perhaps having watched Cabrera put on a season-long fielding clinic in Anaheim, Epstein focused on bringing in someone that could field the position at a top-notch level for 2006. Alex Gonzalez had previously spent his career with Florida and was recognized as one of the top defensive shortstops in the game, worthy of a starting spot despite limited offensive output (though he did have a bit of a knack for power, and had hit 23 home runs in 2004). Gonzalez played 111 games with Boston in the season that has gone down as the only one under Epstein wherein the Sox did not reach the postseason. He was referred to more than once as the best defender to ever play the position for the team, and his smooth hands and calm demeanor in the field would haunt Sox fans in the 2 and a half seasons following.
It was no fault of Gonzalez’s that Epstein let him go following the season. The 3 year deal he signed with Cincinatti was perhaps a bit much, and he did miss the 2008 season with injury, but without doubt, it likely proved more valuable than what Boston brought in next. Julio Lugo had been mentioned in trade rumors involving the Sox for years prior and when he reached free agency, it was clear that the team would be in the market for his services. Without doubt, Lugo had been a productive player in his time spent with Tampa Bay. However, his fielding was erratic and after being traded to the Dodgers halfway through 2006, he put up a .545 OPS in 164 at-bats. That sample size was small and perhaps bringing Lugo on would have been a shrewd transaction at the right price, but the 4 year, $36 million deal he was granted put lofty expectations on the new leadoff hitter right away.
Lugo did not last half a season leading off and was demoted to the bottom of the lineup in June, having posted a .568 OPS in his first 80 games with the Red Sox. In the field, he was covering a lot of ground, but he was also making a lot of errors and would total 19 for the regular season. He did, however, hit well in the second half, steal 33 bases, and redeem himself with a leaping catch to save runs in the sixth inning of Game 3 of the World Series against the Colorado Rockies. The Sox would win the Series and, having obviously not ruined the team’s chance of success, the team and fans were ready to grant him a mulligan in 2008.
Lugo’s 2008 was an interesting one while it lasted. He got on-base at a fine .355 clip but produced virtually no power. This was generally considered decent enough for the bottom of the lineup, but rookie infielder Jed Lowrie was producing when he got the chance to play; the success of other Red Sox youngsters such as Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury had those around and following the team wondering if Lowrie could be the next successful product of the farm system. When Lugo suffered a serious knee injury in July that ended his season early, Lowrie got his chance to fill in.
The Stanford graduate received the bulk of the playing time in a platoon with utility man Alex Cora over the remainder of the season and finished with a .258/.339/.400 line. His fielding caused some debate, though: defensive metrics said he performed extraordinarily well at the position, but to the naked eye, he seemed awkward in the position, usually requiring a step or two before he threw. There was also some concern regarding his horrible September, when he hit just .213. When it came to pass that he had been playing with an injured wrist down the stretch, though, it seemed that he was poised for a breakout 2009 campaign.
The apparent plan for 2009 mirrored a strategy that had worked well for the club in 2009: Lugo would be the starting veteran shortstop, but Lowrie would get ample playing time at the position and serve as the backup infielder at second and third base. This was how Ellsbury accumulated playing time in his rookie year, with Crisp primarily manning center field. It was further understood that if Lowrie was seriously outperforming Lugo, he would get the opportunity to play everyday. The older of the duo, though, was not yet fully healed from the injury that had cost him the second half of 2008 and thus Lowrie served as the Opening Day shortstop.
His opportunity to shine lasted five games. The wrist, it turned out, had not fully healed and Lowrie hit the disabled list. With both Lowrie and Lugo out, career journeyman Nick Green, who had been expected to spend his season as storage in Pawtucket, was called upon to fill the role. Green performed admirably in April and May, posting OPS’s of .782 and .784 respectively, but lacked range in the field and the bat fell apart following the two strong months; he finished the season with a .236/.303/.366 line.
Lugo returned in time for May and actually hit quite well. However, the lingering effects of the injury required that he and Green split time, and it became quickly apparent that the two aspects of his game that had given him any prior value — his range and his speed — were gone; the injury had made him a player with very little to provide the Red Sox. When Lowrie returned in July, the roster crunch demanded that either Green or Lugo was let go; Epstein swallowed his pride and again let a high-priced shortstop that he had signed on the open market go. Designated for assignment, Lugo was traded to the Cardinals — like Renteria, with a hefty sum of cash — a week later for Chris Duncan, who would never play a game with Boston. Lowrie, almost comically, ended up on the disabled list again in short time.
In early August, Epstein swung a trade for Gonzalez, bringing 2006’s starting shortstop back to Boston for the remainder of the season. For two months, Gonzalez was plugged in to play every day. Though injury and a couple of years’ worth of further aging had limited his range some, he was extremely steady in the field and at last provided some semblance of consistency and reliability at a position that had been a mess to that point of the season. Gonzalez played 44 games in his second stint with the Sox and hit better than expected, posting a .769 OPS and five home runs (he had posted only a .554 OPS and 3 homers in 68 games with Cincinatti in the first part of the season). All the same, when the season ended, Epstein — again — let Gonzalez walk, this time to Toronto.
And — again — Epstein went after the top shortstop on the market. A lot differs between Marco Scutaro and Edgar Renteria or Julio Lugo, though. For one, Scutaro is an extremely patient hitter who better fits the offensive prototype that has driven Red Sox offenses since 2003. To his detriment, however, Scutaro does not have nearly the track record of success that either Lugo or Renteria had prior to coming to Boston. What makes this deal infinitely more palatable, though, is its size and its length: the Red Sox are only comitted to Scutaro for 2 years and $12.5 million in guaranteed money. At this price, Scutaro could function as a utility man, albeit an expensive one, for the club should he fail to produce. Steady in the field and coming off his best offensive season, though, the Sox certainly are expecting more of the new shortstop. Fans, too, will likely fall for Scutaro, a “dirt dog” of the same cloth as Trot Nixon, Dustin Pedroia, and Kevin Youkilis (assuming, of course, that he produces).
The length of the deal, though, certainly warrants another question: what’s next? Scutaro will be 34 this season and is likely not to be back after his current deal (it includes an option for a third year, but that will almost certainly be the extent of his run in Boston). Who will be the next to walk through the revolving door?
Cuban youngster Jose Iglesias is already turning heads since being signed to a contract worth more than $8 million last summer. His fielding is already very highly-touted and the brass holds out hope that he will be able to develop well offensively. This is a value-driven front office, and at that money, it is likely that they are going to give Iglesias every opportunity to eventually become the club’s starting shortstop. Lowrie, too, is an option for the future, but his star has certainly fallen since a year ago and he will need to prove his health before the Red Sox are willing to advance his career any further. Further options will, of course, include free agents in the years coming forth or major trade candidates. Whenever Hanley Ramirez‘s name is drifted, for instance, the club’s usually doesn’t fall very far behind it.
Whatever comes next at the position, the best bet is to not count on anything. Filling it has been an elusive task for Epstein and the front office and we’d best continue to expect that it will remain as such. For now, it’s Scutaro’s spot to lose. We’ll soon see whether or not he does.
-Adam Vaccaro can be followed on Twitter.