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All-Time Red Sox Roster: Nomar Garciaparra

A career shortened by injuries, but defined by a huge peak.

Cleveland Indians v Boston Red Sox

Seasons in Boston: 1996-2004

Honors: 1997 American League Rookie of the Year, 6x All-Star, Silver Slugger, 1999 & 2000 American League Batting Title

Red Sox Numbers: .323/.370/.553, 178 HR, 709 R, 690 RBI, 84 SB, 134 wRC+, 38.9 fWAR

Signature Season (2000): .372/.434/.599, 21 HR, 104 R, 96 RBI, 5 SB, 154 wRC+, 7.6 fWAR

As it stands right now Nomar Garciaparra is the greatest shortstop the Red Sox have ever had. The guy they have there right now, Xander Bogaerts, seems likely to surpass him in WAR given his age and current success, but he’s unlikely to rival the peak that Garciaparra had. Most of us who watched Garciaparra associate him with that peak. For a seven-year stretch from 1997 through 2003, he was not only one of the best shortstops in the game, he was one of the best players in the game. His inability to sustain this peak due to injuries are what cost him entry to Cooperstown and ultimately degraded his relationship with the team, leading to his eventual trade.

From the beginning, Garciaparra was a phenom. He was drafted twice, once in the fifth round by the Brewers and later 12th overall by the Red Sox. Rather than signing out of high school, Garciaparra decided to join future Red Sox teammate Jason Varitek at Georgia Tech and had a remarkable college career. When he finally reached the minor leagues he spent only 201 games honing his skills before getting the call up to the big leagues for good in 1996. He won the starting shortstop job out of spring training in 1997 and took off like a seasoned pro. He would go on to win the American League Rookie of the Year Award by a unanimous vote, his first and only Silver Slugger award, and make his first of six All-Star teams. He would also post several career bests including a 30-game hit streak and his only season compiling over 200 hits, finishing with 209.

Offensively, Garciaparra was unique, rarely striking out and seemingly barreling everything. During that rookie season he struck out just 12.5 percent of the time while batting .306/.342/.534. He continued to improve on this skill and by 1999 he struck out just 6.6 percent of the time and posted a .357/.418/.603 line. This was rare. Aside from Garciaparra, Ted Williams is the only player in Red Sox history to slug higher than .600 while posting a strikeout rate under 10%. Aside from Garciaparra, there have been just sixteen other players in all of baseball to accomplish this since 1950. Of those players, only Garciaparra and four others are not in the Hall of Fame.

From 1997-2000 Garciaparra was the third best player in baseball according to FanGraphs WAR. His total of 27.5 wins above replacement ranked only behind Barry Bonds and Jeff Bagwell. He led his peers Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter in both fWAR and in wRC+. Defensive metrics also had Garciparra as the strongest of this trio out producing Rodriguez in Def 52.3 to 43.5—Jeter produced a negative value on defense. The fact that Garciaparra was the best of this group was not controversial at the time. In fact Rodriguez even said as much in 2000 saying, ‘’I’m the youngest, Derek’s the richest, and Nomar’s the best.” For once Rodriguez had it right.

As fantastic as his 1999 season was, I think his 2000 season was his best. That magical year Garciaparra hit .372/.434/.599. As Lou Merloni, his teammate at the time put it, “In 2000, I’ve never seen anyone barrel up balls on the consistent basis he did that year.” His batting average of .372 was the highest by a right handed batter since Joe DiMaggio hit .381 in 1939, and since then the only player to surpass it was Larry Walker—a lefty who played in Colorado. Always a doubles machine, Garciaparra hit more that season, 51, than he had strikeouts, 50. Garciaparra’s .372 average is fourth best in Red Sox history behind only Williams’s 1941 and 1957 seasons and Tris Speaker’s 1912 MVP year. It’s fitting that his average was the best since DiMaggio since Williams said Garciaparra reminded him of the Yankee Clipper, telling then GM Dan Duquette “That’s who he reminds me of, DiMaggio! The build, the face, the foot speed, the way he swings and the ease with which he plays the game.”

The decline phase of his career happened after his magical 2000 season. Early in spring training Garciaparra felt pain in his wrist and an MRI confirmed it was a split tendon. He underwent surgery in early April and returned to the field at the end of July. Once back he was still bothered by the injury, missing time on and off for the rest of the year. The 2002 season marked a return to health for Garciaparra as he rebounded to a .310/.352/.528 line with a career-best 56 doubles, good for second best in team history. Even though he had a great year with a whopping 85 extra base hits there were those that thought his bat had noticeably slowed. He was no longer at the peak of his powers. In 2003, he seemed to trust the wrist a bit more, enjoying his only career six-hit game on June 21. Despite his reduced form he still finished 2002-2003 as the second ranked shortstop in the game behind only Rodriguez in fWAR.

Garciaparra had shown the team enough in those two seasons that he felt he deserved a big payday after taking a below-market five-year deal worth $23.25 million prior to the 1998 season. His deal also had options for 2003 and 2004. He knew what he was worth, and he also knew what his teammates and peers were making. This was a source of great frustration for him as he explained, “Manny’s making $20 [million dollars a year]. Pedro’s making $17 [million]. You see where you fit in, you see what you do. Alex is making $25 [million], Jeter’s making $19 [million]. I mean, where do I fit it in? Let’s figure it all out.” The Red Sox did offer him a deal of four-years and $60 million in March of 2003. The deal was rejected and the relationship between the team and Garciaparra continued to sour. Later, that year at the Winter Meetings they had reportedly tried to trade him in the famous failed attempt to land Rodriguez. Coming off of the Aaron Boone loss this attempted trade only built up more animosity and frustration.

The noticeably slower Garciaparra who had been hobbled by an Achilles injury early in the year was traded to the Cubs on July 31, 2004. The key pieces coming back were Doug Mientkiewicz and Orlando Cabrera. As we know the rest is history. The team went 42-19 after the trade and won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. Garciaparra was a great player while he was here but his time had run its course as manager Terry Francona put it he was “Bostoned out.” He was unhappy and it showed, the team played better without him.

Garciparra’s legacy is that of the greatest shortstop in team history, but also one who was undoubtedly traded at the right time. Even the most ardent of his fans would have a hard time arguing otherwise. He had become frustrated with Duquette towards the end of his tenure, frustrated with his injuries, and later frustrated with John Henry and ownership over his contract talks. It seems both sides have moved past this because he signed a one-day contract on March 10, 2010 to retire as a member of the Red Sox.

His story here was complicated. He was loved by fans and he was respected around the game, but moving on from him was absolutely the right move. Had he stayed healthy he’d have been a Hall of Famer, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to so he’ll have to settle for the title of best shortstop in Red Sox history.

Introduction and Honorable Mentions Part One

Honorable Mentions Part Two

Bench: Bobby Doerr

Bench: Jason Varitek

Bench: Manny Ramirez

Bench: Tris Speaker

Bench: Carl Yastrzemski

Starting Catcher: Carlton Fisk

Starting First Baseman: Jimmie Foxx

Starting Second Baseman: Dustin Pedroia

Startin Third Baseman: Wade Boggs