Saturday, October 25, 2008

Firing up the Hot Stove: Shortstop

Alternate title: My $1 sunglasses

I have this pair of $1 sunglasses. I bought them in Florida three years ago when my family was on vacation; I have a problem with sitting on or dropping things on or otherwise breaking sunglasses. When I was in youth group in high school, I bought a pair of $25 sunglasses while we were on a mission trip to New Orleans -- and someone dropped their duffel bag right on top of them. They lasted exactly three days. It didn't make any sense, I decided this time, to spend a whole bunch of money on a fancy pair that probably wasn't even going to last the week. I just wanted sunglasses to have while we were at the beach. Anything beyond that was a bonus.

Three years later, I still own those $1 sunglasses. I haven't done anything to them that would threaten their survival; they just have an uncanny ability to avoid getting sat on or stepped on or having something dropped on them. There's nothing necessarily wrong with them, either. They're comfortable enough, and they, you know, block the sun, so I have no reason to get rid of them.

But I did kind of want some sunglasses that looked cooler. As you can imagine, my $1 sunglasses aren't exactly turning heads when I cruise the strip in my, um, Camry. I figured some snazzy sunglasses would really help. A couple of months ago, I went to the mall and picked out a pair that was more flexible, more comfortable and didn't have the gaudy aluminum frames that made the $1 sunglasses look a little bit weird. They were great. I paid $15 for them and went on my way.

You can guess the next part: It took all of a week for me to leave them on the front seat of my car and sit on them. I snapped one of the lenses in half; they were finished. My $15 was as good as wasted. After that, I had to go back to my $1 sunglasses -- and they still work! They're still not broken! They're still there every time I'm driving around and need sunglasses for the glare through the windshield!

The lesson that we learn here seems particularly applicable as we look at Red Sox shortstops. Ever since the heyday of Nomar Garciaparra, the position has been a revolving door of disaster. Orlando Cabrera did OK, of course, but the Red Sox let him walk in favor of Edgar Renteria. After Renteria came Alex Gonzalez, and he was great with the glove, but his OBP was sub-.300, and that's pretty much terrible.

After that season, then, the Red Sox shelled out big money for four seasons of Julio Lugo. He, however, hit .236 and made 19 errors; when he came back this season, he ended up missing half the season with a quadriceps injury. Jed Lowrie played 81 games, split between shortstop and third base, and hit a respectable (for a rookie) .258, but that included .213 in September and then .207 in the postseason. (Yes, he drove in the winning run in Game 4 of the American League Division Series against the Angels, but let's face it -- it was a weak ground ball that happened to find a hole. It was a big hit, but let's not get carried away.)

Next season
The baseball guys at WEEI were discussing the list of available free-agent shortstops the other day: Cabrera is on that list, as is Renteria, and you probably don't need to go there again. But Rafael Furcal is a free agent, and while he was hurt for much of the season, he was 8-for-31 (.258) with six walks in the playoffs, and he's hit right around .275 or .280 for much of his career. Adam Everett, a former Red Sox farmhand who has been one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball, likewise is on the list.

But here's the thing: Why are we looking at free agents? Why would anyone even consider shelling out big money -- Furcal made $13 million in 2008 -- for yet another shortstop?

Remember the lesson of the $1 sunglasses, a lesson the Red Sox have not heeded with their shortstops for years: If you try to get too fancy, you'll sometimes get burned. The Red Sox got burned with Renteria; they've gotten burned with Lugo, too. If you hand the 31-year-old Furcal a three-year deal worth $40 million, you run a very big risk of getting burned again.

What they'll do
You would think the Red Sox would be prepared to go to spring training with Lowrie and Lugo both locks for the roster and let them fight it out. Alex Cora remains an option, but it's hard to believe you could find room on the roster for all three of those players.

It almost seems like a letdown to return Lowrie and Lugo, like they're missing something. But what's wrong with that? Lugo has played second base and third base as recently as 2006 with the Dodgers; if Lowrie wins the job, there's still a spot for Lugo two days a week at shortstop and one day a week at second base or third base. He's still signed through 2010 with an option for 2011 that likely won't become automatic thanks to his injury this season. (It's based on 600 plate appearances per year for four years; he'd need to average 732 plate appearances in the next two seasons for it to kick in.)

Lowrie remains raw. Lugo remains under contract. The Red Sox are not the Yankees. Look for Theo Epstein to explore a deal -- he always does -- but to end up bringing those two to spring training this season and letting them fight it out for playing time.

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