Thursday, July 16, 2009

The impending courtship of Marco Scutaro

Theo Epstein almost certainly is taking a look at the roster of the Toronto Blue Jays this week. He's trying to figure out if it's worth the price it would take to acquire Roy Halladay. He's trying to figure out if it might be worth inquiring about third baseman Scott Rolen -- particularly if Mike Lowell's sore hip continues to flare up.

Epstein, eventually, will find another name on the list, the name of a player who will be a free agent after this season. This player isn't making much money but isn't exactly helping the Blue Jays go anywhere, either, and he might be available for a relative pittance in terms of prospects. This player would be more than adequate as a place-holder should Lowell continue to struggle, and he'd be a perfect fit as a utility player next season.

This player is Marco Scutaro.

Scutaro doesn't just have the best name in the major leagues -- aside from Coco Crisp, of course. Scutaro also is exactly the type of player the Red Sox covet and exactly the type of player who would fit beautifully with what the Red Sox are trying to do both at the plate and in the field.

At the plate
The Red Sox want guys who are going to make pitchers work and get on base. That's the focus. That's what they want to spend their money on.

Nick Green has done a nice job filling in while Jed Lowrie works his way back, but making pitchers work is not exactly his forte -- he swings at 39 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. (The major league average is somewhere around 24 percent.)

Kevin Youkilis swings at 18.2 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. J.D. Drew swings at 17.6 percent.

Scutaro, so far this season, swings at 11.5 percent.

In fact, check out the American League leaderboard:

1. Scutaro: 11.5 percent
2. Nick Swisher: 16.7 percent
3. Bobby Abreu: 16.7 percent
4. Chone Figgins: 17.9 percent
5. Denard Span: 17.1 percent

Scutaro is far and away the best in the American League at laying off pitches that are out of the strike zone. At the same time, though, he's terrific at making contact at the ball in the strike zone -- he has a contact rate of 96.1 percent when the ball is in the strike zone, third-best in the American League.

Jason Bay, for a little perspective, makes contact when he swings at a ball in the strike zone just 80.5 percent of the time. Even Youkilis and Drew both are under 90 percent.

Scutaro will make pitchers throw strikes and is able to put the ball in play. Small wonder his on-base percentage (.384) ranks 11th in the American League this year, right in between Justin Morneau and Miguel Cabrera. Among current Red Sox, only Youkilis (.419) ranks higher.

In the field
It's not just that Scutaro comes across as a good defensive shortstop through John Dewan's plus/minus system.

So far this season, he's the best.

So far this season, Scutaro has earned a plus-21 for plays made, according to Dewan's system, and has saved 16 runs -- tops in the major leagues. (Jack Wilson is at plus-20, and Elvis Andrus is at plus-10. No one else is in double digits. Nick Green is at plus-4. Julio Lugo is at minus-15.)

A year ago, while only playing part-time at shortstop, he earned a plus-12 and saved nine runs, good for eighth in the major leagues.

All that time, though, he also was playing part-time at third base -- where he earned himself a plus-17 on Dewan's scale and saved 13 runs. Only Adrian Beltre (plus-32) and Jack Hannahan (plus-21) ranked higher. Even Blue Jays teammate Scott Rolen, well known as one of the best defensive third basemen in the game, only recorded a plus-13.

Imagine having Scutaro available to play both shortstop and third base both this season and next. Kevin Youkilis -- a player whose defensive numbers consistently are far better at first base than at third -- could play first base full-time. Lowell could take some days off. Lowrie could take some days off.


Scutaro, for whatever reason, always has been seen as a useful utility infielder but not much more. He's almost 34 years old but didn't get more than 100 plate appearances in a single season until just five years ago. (Surprise, surprise: It was with Billy Beane's Oakland Athletics.)

He's never been highly coveted. When the A's traded him to the Blue Jays, in fact, they received only minor league pitchers Kristian Bell and Graham Godfrey. (Our research might be off, but we believe Bell starred in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and Godfrey played the voice of Iago in "Aladdin." Not much of a trade.)

He's making just $1.1 million this season -- and he's a free agent after this season.

Epstein would do well to inquire about Scutaro the next time he calls Ricciardi -- he could pretend he's calling about Halladay, in fact, and then work his way to the 34-year-old career utility infielder. If he can't get a deal done this month, he ought to have Scutaro's agent on speed-dial once free agency begins this winter.

The best teams are built with a specific plan in mind. Few players both are dirt-cheap affordable and fit the Red Sox plan perfectly. But Scutaro is one of those players.

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