Marco Scutaro may never have another year like he did in 2009. Yet even if he simply performs as he had throughout his career, the shortstop – who, according to a baseball source, reached agreement pending a physical with the Red Sox on a two-year deal with an option – will represent an upgrade over what Boston had last season at a position that has become its Bermuda triangle.
(UPDATE: ESPN.com's Buster Olney is reporting that the deal is for a guaranteed two years and $12.5 million, with team and player options that could increase its value to $17 million over three years. For details, click here.)
The 34-year-old represented the unquestioned best talent on the free-agent shortstop market. He was the only available player at the position to perform at an above-average level with both his bat and his glove in 2009.
Even so, the Sox had to satisfy some concerns about Scutaro’s health, due to the plantar fasciitis of his right foot that ended his season. ESPN.com reported that the Sox deployed Assistant to the GM Allard Baird to Florida to watch Scutaro work out.
Moreover, the Sox had to stomach the unsavory prospect of parting with a draft pick – which could be as high as their first rounder, the No. 29 overall choice, if they do not sign another “Type A” free agent this winter – to sign the veteran. Yet that sacrifice became easier early on Wednesday morning. When reliever Billy Wagner signed with the Braves, it resulted in a pair of draft picks for Boston, one that could be as high as No. 30 overall.
And so, with the key reassurance about Scutaro’s health and the knowledge that they had extra draft picks, the Sox could make a deal for a player who should represent a meaningful upgrade. Those who have observed Scutaro over the years are confident he will do just that.
“With the Red Sox, it’s only going to make that ballclub better,” said former Sox outfielder Dave Roberts, who played with Scutaro in Cleveland’s minor-league system and monitored his progress from afar this year. “Marco doesn’t have the notoriety or fanfare on the defensive side as Alex Gonzalez, and rightfully so. But I think he’s going to do a very good job catching the baseball, and he’ll bring a lot more to the team on the offensive side.”
The Sox have said on many occasions that they achieved defensive stability late in the year through the acquisition of Alex Gonzalez. Moreover, Gonzalez provided surprisingly decent offensive contributions (a .284 average, .316 OBP and .453 slugging mark in 44 regular-season games after being traded from Cincinnati to Boston).
Even so, though the Sox enjoyed stretches of solid play at short, on the whole, the combined work of Julio Lugo, Jed Lowrie, Nick Green and Gonzalez was dreadful. There is litte doubt that the Sox won 95 games and reached the playoffs in spite of their shortstop play, which ranked among the worst in the American League.
The Sox go about the process of team-building with the hope of fielding an above-average player at every position. The team failed in that undertaking last year.
A.L. shortstops had an average line of a .274 average with a .329 OBP, .391 slugging mark and .719 OPS. The Sox fell well below all of those marks. In 2009, their shortstops had a combined average of .234 (12th in the A.L.) with a .297 OBP (11th), a .358 slugging mark (10th) and .655 OPS (10th).
Injuries likely played a part in limiting Lugo, Lowrie and Green at different times. Nonetheless, the numbers are the numbers, and the Sox were hindered by what they received at the position.
Scutaro, meanwhile, enjoyed a career year in which he set career highs in several categories, including batting average (.282), OBP (.379), slugging (.409), OPS (.789) and homers (12). He also led A.L. shortstops with 4.07 pitches seen per plate appearance. He also played what was considered well above-average defense at short for the Blue Jays.
The fact that Scutaro enjoyed such a season at an age when most players have begun to decline suggests that he may be due for some slippage in 2010. Yet even if Scutaro regressed to his career norms, he would still be an upgrade over the Sox’ numbers at the position of a year ago.
Before his breakout year, Scutaro had a relatively modest career line of .261/.325/.377/.702. All four of those numbers are superior to what the Sox got from their shortstops in 2009, and all four of them represent decent approximations of what a league-average shortstop looked like last year.
Defensively, Scutaro is regarded highly. Even though he came up as a second baseman in the minors, he had been viewed as no worse than major-league average at both middle infield positions after he became a big-league regular in Oakland. With Toronto, his glove work progressed to the point where he was described by members of the Blue Jays as exceptional last year.
Officials from different clubs in both leagues have confirmed that Scutaro was an above-average defensive shortstop in 2009. That, too, will represent an improvement for a Sox club that on the whole featured defense that graded (both through advanced defensive metrics and observational scouting) as well below average at shortstop.
He might not be as good as Gonzalez (even though some members of the Jays insist that Scutaro is better defensively than the former Sox player who just signed with Toronto). Even so, Scutaro is a distinct upgrade over what the Sox had over the full scope of the 2009 campaign.
“He really made himself into a quality big-league ballplayer and learned to play shortstop very effectively,” said Roberts. “On the defensive side, he makes the plays he’s supposed to make, and he’s got a very high baseball IQ.”
In John Dewan’s Plus/Minus rating, Scutaro rated as having saved 16 more outs and 12 more runs than the average shortstop, the fourth best total in the majors. According to Fangraphs.com, he projected to save one run over the average shortstop per 150 games.
The fact that the Sox were able to commit to Scutaro for just two years should help them avoid being impacted as they were by their prior failed signings at shortstop, Edgar Renteria and Julio Lugo. Both of those players were signed to substantial deals – $10 million a year for Renteria, $9 million for Lugo – at four years each.
Scutaro, on the other hand, can be useful even if he falls short of his career year. If he fails as a starting shortstop, or if Jed Lowrie can stay healthy enough to wrestle the position from Scutaro in 2010, Scutaro’s defensive versatility will ensure that he remains a useful player, capable of filling in at second, third and short.
And, if Scutaro is able to repeat what he did this year in Toronto, he’ll give the Sox one of the best shortstops in the majors. Unlike Renteria and Lugo, his contract will not seem an albatross. He need not block either Lowrie or Jose Iglesias from a job in the majors whenever they are deserving; instead, he should buy time for both players to continue their development without being rushed into a role for which they are not ready.
In short, Scutaro would appear to improve the Sox in multiple ways in the short term while doing nothing to impede the club in the long term.
Or, at least, that’s the idea behind the signing. Whether that comes to fruition or not – as the Sox have learned from their succession of shortstops in recent years – is another matter entirely.
Nuggetpalooza: Marco Scutaro - Tale of the Tape
Lou Merloni: Scutaro vs. Gonzalez - A Landslide Decision
Rob Bradford: Marco Scutaro Testimonials
Alex Speier: Shallow Waters - The Free-Agent Shortstop Market
Audio: Blue Jays Third Base Coach Brian Butterfield on Scutaro with Mut & Bradford