It's been widely noted that the Red Sox have had a shortstop problem for a while now. The scope of the problem wasn't quite apparent to me until I did this simple search. The search says that, since Theo Epstein took over the Red Sox before the 2003 season, 15 different players have manned shortstop for Boston*. For the math impaired (and yes, I just counted on my fingers) that's one and a half different shortstops per season. That's hardly what you'd call consistency.
* I used a 50 plate appearance cut-off.
Here for fun (not sure what is fun about this, but still) are some of those 15 shortstops:
- Alex Cora
- Julio Lugo
- Marco Scutaro
- Nomar Garciaparra
- Jed Lowrie
- Nick Green
- Yamaico Navarro
- Ramon Vazquez
The leader in fWAR over that period is Nomar. Second place is Scutaro followed by Lowrie. They're all relatively close though because it's impossible to build up a lead in a counting stat when you only play about 100 games on average. I think the point is made. The Red Sox shortstop position has been a black hole (for the most part) over the past decade and solving this problem will be one of the great challenges of Ben Cherington's off-season.
Generally speaking there are three ways to go. The first is the team can use someone (or a combination of someones) that they have on hand, either from the majors or from a minor league roster. The second way is to trade for someone outside the organization, and the third is to sign a free agent. The Red Sox have been down all those roads before with little success. But this isn't about the past. It's about what will help the next great Red Sox team win in the future (defined as anytime after right... now!).
So let's take a look at some of the Red Sox options.
The first and easiest option is to play Jose Iglesias, One of The 15 listed above, Iglesias is the leader to start at short next season because he's under contract, has some major league experience, has a major league contract, and has the glovework of an angel. Iglesias's defense has been described as the best single skill in the Red Sox minor league system, and it is legitimately great. Scouts trip over themselves trying to give it higher grades (but max out when they hit the ceiling of the 20-to-80 scale, 80). And deservedly so. But as well as Iglesias plays the field, that's how badly he hits. Well, no, but almost. Last season, his age 22 season, Iglesias hit .266/.318/.306 through most of last season which doesn't seem quite so bad a price to pay for excellent defense until I include this note: he did it in Triple-A.
So he's got some obvious holes. Like, hitting. But on the plus side he does have age and thus development time. There is a chance, and the Red Sox subscribe to this notion, that Iglesias could become a serviceable hitter, as opposed to the black hole of awful that he is now. And a serviceable hitter with Iglesias's brand of high-quality defense is a multi-win player who makes the team's pitching staff look better than it is. Imagine!
The other in-house option is shortstop Xander Bogaerts. Bogaerts isn't ready for major league pitching yet. He just turned 20 and played his 2012 season split between Double-A Portland and High-A Salem. But man, the dude can rake. He's got power up the wazoo, good contact skills, and best of all he's got tons of room to develop. It's a shockingly impressive package for a shortstop. Thing is, some question whether or not he can play shortstop long-term in the bigs. He is still a skinny 175 pounds precariously glued onto a 6'3 frame. The potential to bulk up (and thus lose quickness and agility) definitely exists.
Could the Red Sox bring Bogaerts up in 2013? Well, sure. They can do whatever they want. But playing regularly at 20 is a stretch. While there is a chance Bogaerts earns himself a September call-up next season, things have to go very right for that to happen at two levels. Also, if you think Bogaerts is likely the shortstop of the future but isn't ready now, that's another reason to stay conservative, stay in-house, and play Iglesias.
Whether the Sox decide to stay with Iglesias likely revolves around the shortstop markets, both trade and free agency. The free agent market is remarkably bereft of talent at short, with the oft-injured 30-year-old Stephen Drew headlining. Drew would be a fine addition to the team (if likely not an outstanding one), but he would block Iglesias this season and if he required a longer contract, well, that's when things get sticky. Maybe that's not a bad thing, but it is something to consider.
The big unknown in all this is who is available on the trade market. I pulled up a list of players who played shortstop last season and the ones who are 1) above average, 2) not crazy old, and 3) played for lousy teams and thus were potentially available, were few and far between. There are a few big names but acquiring them is quite unlikely. The two big names who spring to mind are Jose Reyes of the Marlins and Troy Tulowitzki of the Rockies. Tulowitzki has eight seasons at $145 million left on his deal ($18.25 million per). He'll be 28 next season so maybe he's worth that contract if you think he can stay healthy (he missed over 100 games last season). When he's on though he's roughly a league-average shortstop who hits .304/.376/.554 over the last three seasons not counting last year. Sure, there's park effects in there and he's not close to the same hitter outside Colorado as he is inside, but the guy can hit. But even for that package, eight years is a long, long time.
Reyes is a bit different in that he just signed with Miami this past off-season so they're probably not looking to move him. But, if they are, the Red Sox could do much worse than the four and a half win player Reyes was last season. He will cost $96 million over the next five seasons ($19.2 million though so he won't be cheap either in prospects (though maybe he would be cheaper) or in cash. As you might guess, all these things make a deal unlikely.
The other guy who may be available is Asdrubal Cabrera who was mentioned in this article by Fox Sports' Jon Paul Morosi the other day. Morosi speculates the Red Sox and Indians match up well on a number of potential deals. Cabrera is due $10 million this season and, I believe, has one more year of team control beyond that (which would almost surely come at a higher salary). Depending on where you go for your defensive stats, Cabrera is a slightly below average fielding shortstop, but he can hit and hit for some power (he slugged .460 in 2011).
It's debatable how much any of these guys would be the guy to solve the shortstop problem. None are sure things thanks to injury and age, just the kind of thing the Red Sox probably don't want to take on and especially so since those players are attached to expensive, long-term contracts. Yet, all of those guys used to be thought of as the best in the game (Cabrera excluded there, but there were those who thought he was among the best in the game two seasons ago).
After a whole lot of tire-kicking, this off-season will probably result in just playing Iglesias, a move I endorsed in my Armchair GM piece last week. That buys more time for Bogaerts to develop without burying him on the depth chart before he reaches Triple-A. Also, I like the idea of giving the guy regular at-bats and seeing what he can do with them. Maybe he can start to figure out big league pitching a bit. If the Sox could get his glove into the lineup regularly it would save them lots of salary and let them use their trade chips to solve other problems.
No, playing Iglesias may not solve the position long term, and in fact, might not even solve it for the duration of the 2013 season, but I think it's the safest smartest path to finding a stalwart at the position while maintaining roster and payroll flexibility and avoiding the long-term contract morass that the Sox just extracted themselves from.