While the free agent market has moved, by and large, at a deliberate pace this offseason, that has not been the case at one position in recent days. The shortstop market has been more active than that of any other position on the diamond.
Alex Gonzalez has signed with Toronto, Alex Cora is on the cusp of returning to the Mets, Omar Vizquel agreed to a one-year deal with the White Sox, John McDonald re-upped on a two-year deal with the Jays, Juan Castro reportedly has agreed to terms with the Phillies as a backup middle infielder and Jack Wilson (who would have been a free agent had the Mariners declined his option) agreed to a two-year deal to stay in Seattle.
In short, at short, the movement has been more significant than at virtually any other position this offseason. To date, the Red Sox are still in the market for a player to complement Jed Lowrie at the position.
Some options do remain, of course. Most notably, Marco Scutaro -- coming off a career year in which he set career highs in most offensive categories, and in which his defense graded as well above average -- looms as the best available shortstop in free agency. That said, Scutaro also likely will be the most expensive free agent option, in more senses than one.
Coming off his career year, Scutaro is positioned to seek a multiyear deal for an average annual value that may exceed that of any other shortstop on the market. Because the Blue Jays are all but certain to offer him salary arbitration (thus meaning that the team that signs him would have to forfeit a top draft pick), teams such as the Sox will also have to consider whether to swallow hard and pay for Scutaro in years, dollars and a draft pick.
Nonetheless, Scutaro stands out as the best of what’s left. Here is a survey of some of the remaining shortstops on the market.
Offense: Scutaro entered last season with a career .261 average, .325 OBP, .377 slugging mark and .702 OPS. He had never hit more than nine homers in a season.
Then he enjoyed a career-best 2009, hitting .282 with a .379 OBP, .409 slugging, .789 OPS, 12 homers, 100 runs, 60 RBI and a dozen steals. It was, in short, a career year by any measure.
Unsurprisingly, the Bill James projections forecast some return from orbit next year. Scutaro is projected to hit .264/.347/.381/.728 in 2010.
Defense: Scutaro has shown elite defensive abilities over the last two seasons. In 2008, he shuffled between third and short. According to John Dewan's plus/minus ratings, which evaluate how many plays a fielder makes relative to an average defensive player at a given position, Scutaro converted 17 more opportunities into outs than the average third baseman and 12 more chances than the average shortstop. In 2009, he played almost exclusively at short, converting 16 more chances into outs than the average player at his position, a mark that ranked fourth in the majors.
UZR/150 (ultimate zone rating per 150 games, which measures plays made by a position player compared to the average defensive player at his position, and converts that into the number of runs saved or allowed as compared to an average player) agreed with that assessment for the 2008 season, suggesting that Scutaro saved 20.3 runs compared the average shortstop and 24.4 compared to the average second baseman over 150 games. But that system was less enthusiastic about Scutaro’s work in 2009, suggesting that his defensive work was just one run better than the average shortstop.
Multiple major league officials from different clubs, however, suggested that Scutaro performed at a well-above-average defensive level in 2009.
Offense: If modern offense was solely dependent on sac bunts, he would be a star. Everett led the American League with 15 sacrifice bunts in 2009. That is about the best that can be said of his offensive abilities.
Everett hit .238/.288/.325/.613 with three homers and 44 RBI in 2009. For his career, he is .245/.297/.351/.648. He projects for marks of .235/.293/.327/.620 in 2010. He’s got the on-base skills of Alex Gonzalez, but without the power.
Defense: Everett is spectacular in the field, likely better even than Gonzalez. According to UZR/150, Everett ranked as the third-best defensive shortstop in the game last year, behind only Wilson and Cesar Izturis of the Orioles.
Projected over 150 games, Everett saved 13.6 runs over the average shortstop over 150 games. That number was slightly ahead of Gonzalez, who finished fifth among big league shortstops in UZR/150 by having saved 10.5 runs per 150 games.
Is that enough to offset his offensive limitations? Tough to say.
Everett was a starter for an Astros team that reached the NLCS in 2004 and the World Series in 2005, but he has since endured some slippage in both his offensive and defensive skill set. He also spent much of 2009 as the starting shortstop for a Tigers team that was lost the division in a one-game playoff, though he lost playing time in the final weeks of the season.
According to a baseball source, the Red Sox have contacted Everett to express preliminary interest in the shortstop, though the team has offered nothing formal. A handful of clubs have contacted Everett — who was taken by the Sox in the first round of the 1998 draft — to express interest.
Offense: Tejada had a cosmetically solid season in 2009, hitting .313 with a .340 OBP, .455 slugging and .795 OPS, hitting 14 homers and driving in 86. But beyond those basic numbers are warning signs.
Tejada’s plate discipline is becoming increasingly poor, as he walked in just 2.1 percent of his plate appearances. (To put that in context, the Sox will not select a minor leaguer as their offensive performer of the month unless he walks in at least 10 percent of his trips to the plate.) Tejada's ability to get on base is dependent on his ability to get hits, and his batting average on balls in play was much higher (.318) in 2009 than it has been throughout his career (.298), meaning that his average is likely to dip next year.
He’s projected for a .299/.342/.449/.791 line in 2010, which would represent solid offensive production should he remain at shortstop.
Defense: Tejada was brutal with the glove in 2010. His had a -12.4 UZR/150 rating and made 21 fewer plays than the average shortstop, according to plus/minus. Tejada might find more interest as a third baseman than as a shortstop.
Offense: Over the last two years with the Brewers, Counsell has produced a respectable .262/.357/.368/.725 line. He has virtually no power, but he does have enough command of the strike zone to make him something other than a liability at the plate.
Defense: Counsell has shuffled around the infield in recent seasons, spending more time at third and second than he has at short. Nevertheless, he has performed credibly at all three positions, and still rates as average to slightly above average in both plus/minus and UZR/150 at all three positions.
Offense: At his peak, Cabrera was never the most patient of hitters, and now, as he reaches his mid-30s, his OBP is lapsing from sub-optimal to problematic. He has gone over the past three years from a .345 OBP to a .334 mark in 2008 to a .316 in 2009. Coupled with a sub-.400 slugging mark, he’s no longer the offensive contributor he was with the Angels a few years ago.
Defense: Cabrera was average to above average in 2007-08; according to John Dewan’s plus/minus ratings, he made three more plays than the average shortstop during those two years.
His defense then took a turn for the putrid in 2009, as he was credited with having made an astonishing 39 fewer plays than the average shortstop, costing his teams 29 runs. UZR/150 tells a story of a similarly dramatic swing, with Cabrera having saved 22 runs in 2007-08, and then cost his teams 13.7 runs in 2009.
Multiple teams consider his glove inadequate for a starting shortstop at this point.
There are those in New England who have forever lamented the Sox’ decision not to re-sign Cabrera after the 2004 season; no one, however, should be up in arms when the Sox avoid pursuing him this offseason.