First things first: It’s an enviable dilemma.
The Red Sox have two players in Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie with the talent to be major league starting shortstops. That is significant not just for the production that both can offer, but also because it means that the team can let the development path of top prospect Jose Iglesias dictate when he reaches the majors, rather than rushing him based on necessity.
Lowrie’s had been almost a forgotten man for much of the 2010 season before his late-season emergence led to questions about whether he, rather than Scutaro, should be the everyday shortstop for the Sox in 2011. Though he had fewer than 200 plate appearances, the 26-year-old Lowrie offered tremendous production at the plate while playing second and short.
He hit .287/.381/.526/.907 with nine homers in roughly one-third of a season (55 games). Those numbers measured up favorably to teammate Dustin Pedroia (.288/.367/.493/.860) in his All-Star first half.
Meanwhile, Scutaro’s offensive totals were modest by comparison. The 34-year-old spent most of the season fighting injuries and could not replicate his career year of 2009. After hitting .282/.379/.409/.789 with the Blue Jays in 2009, he hit .275/.333/.388/.721 for the Sox.
Based purely on those numbers, one would think it obvious that the switch-hitting Lowrie would be the better shortstop option for the Sox. But a few caveats are in order.
- There is no question that injuries impacted Scutaro throughout the season. It is impossible to say how much they affected his numbers, but it would be difficult to conclude that they did not limit his performance at times.
- Scutaro’s numbers in 2010 were almost perfectly in line with his career line of .267/.336/.385/.721, so the Sox could not view them as disappointing.
- His offensive numbers were above average for an American League shortstop. On the whole, AL shortstops hit .258/.312/.357/.669. Scutaro exceeded all of those figures. Between him and Lowrie, in fact, Sox shortstops ranked second in the AL in average, third in OBP, third in slugging and second in OPS. The Sox believe that a top flight offense can be built by having above-average offensive production relative to the league at every position. Scutaro fit that bill.
- From a scouting perspective, the consensus is that Scutaro is the superior defensive shortstop. His defense was impaired in 2010 by his injuries, which most dramatically affected his throwing (while also hindering his ability, at times, to reach for balls with his glove, thus also impacting his range). But if healthy, Scutaro is considered an above-average defensive shortstop who ranked among the better AL defenders at that key position in 2008 and 2009. Lowrie, meanwhile, is still viewed by some as a better second baseman than shortstop due to the limits of his range. While he was, statistically, an above-average shortstop in 2008, he graded as below-average in limited time at the position in 2009 and 2010.
- Even while injured, Scutaro played in a career-high 150 games. In the last two years, he has shown an ability to endure the physical punishment needed to be an everyday player. It remains to be seen whether Lowrie, whose toughness in playing through a non-displaced fracture in his wrist in 2008 should not be overlooked, can withstand the physical demands of a full major league season.
It remains to be seen exactly how the shortstop situation plays out for the Red Sox in 2011. General manager Theo Epstein, following a Hot Stove Cool Music roundtable discussion that raised funds for his Foundation To Be Named Later, suggested that the situation could be fluid.
While he said that Scutaro is the Sox’ primary shortstop as things currently stand (“Scutaro signed here to be the shortstop. … Marco was our shortstop last year, and, until something changes, that’s how it’s going to be,” Epstein said), the situation could change depending on the performance of the two players.
“We have two really talented shortstops on the roster at different phases of their career, and they’ll both end up helping this club win,” Epstein said. “How it shakes out in terms of playing time will be up to [manager Terry Francona] — and, ultimately, the players will determine their own roles.
“If we’re a better team with one guy playing two-thirds of the time and the other guy playing one-third of the time and moving around, that’s what we’ll be. If it looks like we’ll be a better team with a more traditional arrangement or a timeshare, that’s what we’ll do. Players, ultimately, make those decisions for you.”
Based on those possibilities – one player assuming a role as everyday shortstop, a two-thirds/one-third split, a timeshare – it is fair to wonder whether there is a natural platoon that could help to clarify the situation. Here is how the two players break down by the handedness of opposing hurlers.
It is difficult to deny Lowrie’s offensive impact against left-handed pitchers. When batting from the right side, over the last three years, his OPS ranks among the top 15 in the game against lefties. His potential to add thump to a lineup that lost two key weapons against southpaws -- Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre -- is significant.
Scutaro, meanwhile, has been more productive against lefties than righties throughout his career. That said, the difference in his natural platoon split has been relatively modest compared to Lowrie’s.
The offensive disparity in the performance of the two players against lefties could make it difficult for the Sox not to play Lowrie against left-handers. Lowrie's ability to handle left-handers -- admittedly, in a relatively small number of at-bats as a result of his injuries -- has been almost identical to that of departed teammate Adrian Beltre (.324/.395/.542/.937) over the past three years.
In 2008, Lowrie simply could not handle right-handed pitchers down the stretch while trying to play through the non-displaced fracture in his left wrist. But in 2010, with his wrist healthy, he showed that he could hold his own against right-handers.
The switch-hitter was still more formidable against left-handers, but he showed an ability to get on base and drive the ball while batting left-handed. He hit .250/.353/.470/.823 against right-handed pitchers, and his four homers from the left side (in 100 at-bats) were two more than he’d hit in more than twice as many at-bats (229) from that side of the plate in 2008 and 2009.
Lowrie looked like a hitter who could deliver an impact from the left side of the plate in 2010. When healthy in the past (through Aug. 2008 in his rookie season, and in spring training of 2009), he similarly appeared capable of producing against right-handers.
Scutaro, meanwhile, produced numbers almost perfectly in line with his career performance against righties in 2010. While Lowrie was the more productive hitter against righties last season, Scutaro’s line over the longer haul is superior.
Ultimately, the single most significant factor in determining playing time at shortstop could be how Lowrie handles righties this year. Scutaro’s production is largely a defined entity. Lowrie’s is anything but – he was highly productive against righties last year, but could do little against them in 2008 and 2009.
If Lowrie can sustain his 2010 production against right-handers, then ultimately, he could dictate a shift in how playing time is apportioned. If he regresses, then Scutaro’s hold on the Sox’ starting shortstop job could remain secure.
Ultimately, those are evaluations that are best made on the field, rather than in the dead of winter.