No Red Sox move this offseason raised more eyebrows than the decision this month to trade Marco Scutaro -- who was poised to serve as the team's everyday shortstop -- to the Rockies while turning the position over to Mike Aviles and Nick Punto.
Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, speaking before a Hot Stove Cool Music fundraiser for the Foundation to be Named Later, suggested that while he appreciates that shortstop is usually a bedrock position for competitive teams, he's comfortable with the Sox' approach. He suggested that there are precedents for teams to succeed even with some uncertainty at arguably the most prominent up-the-middle position on the diamond.
"It seems different," Valentine said of the Sox' shortstop position, "but not so different than the world champions were last year, and not so different than the world champions have been in this city. Often the shortstop is a staple piece of the group, but the exceptions have been successful also."
That claim seemingly hearkens to an approach that the Red Sox took several years ago.
Jed Lowrie spent his college career playing second base. When the Sox drafted him out of Stanford, they shifted him to shortstop. They encountered plenty of internal and external skepticism about Lowrie’s ability to stay at the position, as current Sox GM Ben Cherington discussed a few years ago.
“There was concern voiced about Jed’s ability to stay at short long term. It was concern based on good information, sound, subjective evaluation. I saw some of those concerns myself,” Cherington said then. “It would have been really easy to go down a path of moving Jed Lowrie to second base because it was a safer place for him to play. People thought he would hit enough to be a big-leaguer at that position.
“We had enough people challenging that opinion, saying that just because this guy didn’t look like the flashiest, smoothest defender who makes highlight-reel plays on Field 3 during spring training, does that actually mean he can’t play shortstop in the big leagues? What does it take to play shortstop in the big leagues? What does it mean to be an above-average shortstop in the big leagues? How would he compare to those guys if he was on the same field, in the same lineup, in the same league?”
Lowrie ended up serving primarily as a shortstop for the Sox. His ability to play that position made him a more enticing asset to the Astros in the offseason trade that netted the Sox late-innings reliever Mark Melancon. The team benefited from bucking conventional wisdom about the size and shape of a major league shortstop in the case of Lowrie.
It seems safe to assume that the Red Sox went through a similar exercise to the one they explored with Lowrie when deciding whether they could trade both Scutaro and Lowrie this offseason in order to entrust shortstop to Aviles and Punto. In the spirit of those questions, then, here is a look at how the last 10 World Series winners have manned shortstop:
2011 Cardinals - Opened the year with Ryan Theriot at short, but traded for Rafael Furcal (who was having a terrible year) at the deadline and featured him at the position for the rest of the year. Cardinals shortstops combined for a .688 OPS, exactly in line with the NL average and just under the MLB average of .697.
2010 Giants - Edgar Renteria was the everyday shortstop at the start of the year, but Juan Uribe became the primary option at the position for most of the year when Renteria was injured in early May. Renteria reclaimed the position for the postseason and ended up winning World Series MVP honors. Giants shortstops had a .736 OPS, ranked eighth among the 30 major league teams.
2009 Yankees - Fellow named Derek Jeter, who had an exceptional season. Yankees shortstops produced an .868 OPS, fourth best in the majors that year.
2008 Phillies - Jimmy Rollins, who was still performing at an elite level for shortstops. Phillies shortstops had a .777 OPS, seventh best in the big leagues in 2008.
2007 Red Sox - Julio Lugo, who hit .237 with a .294 OBP, .349 slugging mark and .643 OPS, making him one of the worst everyday players in the majors that year. Red Sox shortstops produced a dismal .633 OPS, ranked 29th among the 30 major league teams that year.
2006 Cardinals - David Eckstein was the everyday shortstop through mid-August, when he missed roughly a month due to injury. During that time, St. Louis featured Aaron Miles at short. Eckstein, who had a solid .294 average and .350 OBP that year, ended up being the World Series MVP. St. Louis had a .711 OPS from its shortstops, ranked 18th among the 30 big league teams.
2005 White Sox - Juan Uribe was the guy for the White Sox. Over the years, some Sox officials cited Uribe as a player who wasn't a prototypical shortstop but ended up being a solid contributor to a championship team. He looks too big for the position, doesn't walk and his range is not that of, say, Jose Iglesias. But he has a cannon of an arm and significant raw power, and ended up being a significant contributor on the left side of the infield on two championship teams ('05 White Sox and '10 Giants). In other words, there are some profile similarities between Uribe and Aviles. That said, in 2005, Uribe was a .300-ish OBP guy, and the White Sox only had a .678 OPS from shortstops en route to its championship, 20th in the majors.
2004 Red Sox - They got 58 starts from Orlando Cabrera, 56 from Pokey Reese, 37 from Nomar Garciaparra, seven from Cesar Crespo, three from Ricky Gutierrez and one from Mark Bellhorn. From its Frankenshortstop, the Sox ended up achieving decent production, with a .716 OPS that ranked 16th in the majors from its shortstops. That said, the defense was pitiful, pushing the team to make the deal for Cabrera.
2003 Marlins - Alex Gonzalez had an outstanding year, complementing his Gold Glove-caliber defense with 18 homers and a .756 OPS. The Marlins had a .724 OPS from shortstops, 12th in the majors.
2002 Angels - That Eckstein fellow again, who had a .293 average, .363 OBP and .752 OPS. As a team, Angels’ shortstops had a .732 OPS, 10th best in the majors.
Of those 10 teams, only one (the Yankees with Jeter in ’09) featured an All-Star for the team that won a World Series. Five of the last 10 World Series winners received below-average OPS from their shortstops (including the 2007 Red Sox, who had the second-worst OPS from shortstops in the majors). Four received a top-10 OPS from their shortstops, while just one (again, those ’09 Yankees) ranked in the top five in major league shortstop OPS.
Defensively, the group was similarly mixed. Gonzalez in ’03 and Rollins in ’08 are the standard-bearers who delivered Gold Glove-caliber defense; Jeter won a Gold Glove in ’09, though the merits of that award have been oft-disputed. Cabrera in ’04 was also an elite defender. Furcal, while no longer at that level, represented a solid glove.
Also of note: Two of the last 10 World Series winners traded to acquire their postseason shortstop in the middle of the season.
That is not necessarily a commendation of Aviles and Punto. The jury is very much out on the duo, as Valentine acknowledged.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how it will play out,” said Valentine. “If I had a preconceived notion of how it would play out, why even go to spring training? I’ve never seen any of the guys play, except for Punto a little.”
There is little question that premium up-the-middle players are a critical asset for teams. That said, recent championship history suggests that World Series-winning teams have not always featured the prototypical shortstop. Indeed, the ensemble of championship shortstops of the last 10 years points to the notion that there is more than one way to skin the proverbial (and pitiable) cat.
That does not mean that the Sox have identified a successful formula for doing so. At the same time, recent championship experience suggests that the team’s willingness to enter spring training with something of a question mark at a key position should not be dismissed out of hand.