Other than the back end of the bullpen, one could take a pretty accurate crack at what the Red Sox roster will look like on Opening Day. Jason Varitek will be the backup catcher. Mike Lowell likely will be on the disabled list or traded away. Bill Hall and Jeremy Hermida will have spots on the bench.
One of the only toss-ups is in the infield, where either Tug Hulett or Jed Lowrie likely will break camp as the utility infielder who can spell Adrian Beltre, Dustin Pedroia and Marco Scutaro once every couple of weeks apiece.
Hulett got to the plate 19 times with the Kansas City Royals last season but otherwise played most of the season at Triple-A Omaha, playing mostly second base but also a little shortstop, third base and right field. He hit .291 and OBP'ed .384 with 11 home runs and 27 doubles in just shy of 442 plate appearances.
But this doesn't have much to do with Hulett. That has to do with Lowrie and whether the Red Sox believe he could benefit more from regular playing time at Triple-A Pawtucket or whether he's ready now to take over a full-time job should something happen to Beltre, Pedroia or Scutaro.
A wrist injury limited Lowrie to a little over 175 plate appearances combined between the major leagues and minor leagues last season -- and a good chunk of those were rehab plate appearances used less for development than for strength-building. Here's how things break down for Lowrie in the upper levels of the minor leagues:
Double-A: 413 plate appearances
Triple-A: 494 plate appearances
Compare that to another doubles-hitting middle infielder who recently came up through the Red Sox system:
Double-A: 298 plate appearances
Triple-A: 733 plate appearances
In all, Dustin Pedroia played a season and a half at Triple-A Pawtucket before the Red Sox summoned him to the major leagues. He hasn't been back.
Lowrie, on the other hand, made a midseason jump to Triple-A in 2007 and then another midseason jump to the major leagues a year later, finishing with about 400 plate appearances in the process. Even then, though, he was fighting a wrist injury that wasn't resolved until his surgery at the end of April. He hasn't swung a bat without having to think about his wrist for almost two full seasons.
The guess here is that the Red Sox will have him play at least half a season at Triple-A Pawtucket to make up for lost time. He won't turn 26 years old until mid-April, but he's coming off a year in which he didn't get into any sort of rhythm. A full-time bench job this season -- and the irregular playing time that comes with it -- could stunt his development even more.
Three more months in Pawtucket might give him the at-bats he needs to be able to contribute if and when he's called upon.
Update: “You can look at this season as a rebound season, but I’m looking to have a long career. I’m not looking to just have one season,” Lowrie told reporters in Fort Myers. “Every year that I come into camp, I want to be the starting shortstop. I don’t look at it as just this year, all or nothing. I look at it as, I want to build a career. That’s why I want to make sure that I fix this and I get this right. I’m not looking at it from just a this-year standpoint.”