Congratulations, Boston. You have now played as many seasons without Nomar Garciaparra as you did with him. Nomar played his last game as a Red Sox shortstop on July 28, 2004. On that day, after approximately eight-and-a-half seasons, he was traded in the four-team deal that netted Boston both Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz. The Sox have spent the eight-and-a-half seasons since trying to find the next Nomar.
Don't worry; I'm not going to say the trade was a bad idea. Cabrera stabilized the shortstop position in a way the oft-injured Nomar no longer could and was a hero in the ALCS comeback. Would that have happened with Nomar? Would the Sox have won the World Series? We'll never know for certain, but I'm happy to stipulate they did in fact win and that since flags fly forever, it worked out regardless of any consequences. That said, even if we label the Garciaparra trade a good move, it still highlights how damn near impossible it can be to replace a superstar.
You, a Red Sox fan, already know that Nomar Garciaparra was something transplendent back in the heady days of our youth. I was at college in Maine when Nomar was winning batting titles, and my roommates had NESN on every damn day in the fall and spring. I learned to love him --gun to my head, I might have even taken him over Derek Jeter and a skinny Alex Rodriguez. I mean, given a chance to think rationally I would have taken A-Rod given that he was two years younger and was coming off a 10-win season, but Garciaparra had been more consistently excellent over the previous three seasons than the other legs of The Holy Trinity. Of course, then he hurt his wrist, missing most of 2001 and coming back, well, not broken, but not quite whole either. He was terrific in 2002 and 2003, but was slowly tailing off when his 2004 ankle injury sapped what remained of his mobility in the field. After that, the choice wasn't much of a choice at all.
Since Garciaparra was traded, the following players have started at short for the Sox: Orlando Cabrera, Pokey Reese, Edgar Renteria, Ramon Vazquez, Mark Bellhorn, Alex Cora, Alex Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, Julio Lugo, Royce Clayton, Jed Lowrie, Nick Green, Marco Scutaro, Bill Hall, Angel Sanchez, Yamaico Navarro, Mike Aviles, Drew Sutton, Jose Iglesias, Nick Punto, and Pedro Ciriaco. That's twenty-one players in nine seasons. Sure, there are some names in there, but no one who stuck with it for more than a season and a half, and while Nomar raked to the tune of .323/.370/.553 in his eight-plus years in Boston, these poor shadows have managed to hit just .258/.317/.377. Even if we account for a league-wide decrease in offense, that's just a pale comparison. None of them, save Scutaro (roughly five wins in his two-year stint), has been worth even two wins above replacement at short for the Sox.
Again, this isn't to be critical of the Sox' decision-making in 2004. Nomar had one good season left in his tank and he spent it at first base. He wasn't the solution either. Still, it's jarring to see a club with the creative a front office and the deep pockets of the Red Sox relying on a carousel of subpar guys to hold down what's perhaps the most important position on the field. This year, the Wheel of Fish has stopped on Jose Iglesias, who has a career minor league OPS of .626, and Stephen Drew, a hobbled shortstop whose mobility may be gone forever and whose bat can at best be characterized as an enigma. Neither figures to be the foundation that Boston can build its future on. Suddenly we're looking at a full decade without a long-term solution. That would be depressing if it weren't so awe-inspiring.
Looking further down the road, perhaps Xander Bogaerts is the guy that finally takes a chokehold on the position, but he's at least a year away from proving that and may outgrow the position. Meanwhile, the Sox opened up another hole, trading Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers, hoping that they can get enough production out of Mike Napoli (or whoever they wind up using, if Napoli's deal is never finalized) and other acquisitions like Shane Victorino to make up for the loss of their superstar. Those guys are in short supply, though, and it could be another eight years with no solutions on the horizon (look at the first basemen the Yankees cycled through in the wake of Lou Gehrig's unexpected retirement). Sure, MVP-level first basemen are more plentiful than the equivalent shortstop, but you can't take even the former for granted -- and in the suddenly brimming AL East, plugging more than one hole with short term solutions each year is enough to turn a contender into a doorstop very quickly.