FORT MYERS, Fla. -- As Mike Aviles left the JetBlue Park complex Tuesday afternoon, living the life as the Red Sox' starting shortstop, he was congratulated on his latest lot in life.
"Thanks," he said. "I won't let you guys down."
This is Aviles. Well-meaning. Driven. Confident. Slight chip on the shoulder.
For some who continue to simply watch the shortstop out of the corner of their eye while waiting for the next round of Jose Iglesias glove magic, Aviles is still the guy who only cost Yamaico Navarro and contributed to the Red Sox' late-season collapse in 2011 with a couple of baserunning boo-boos.
His foray into the opportunity to be the Red Sox' starting shortstop wasn't like Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Alex Gonzalez, Julio Lugo, Jed Lowrie, or Marco Scutaro. His existence was viewed more in a Nick Green sort of light, a shortstop who could play the position, but only until somebody more suited for the part showed up.
Another comparison that will be thrown out in regard to Aviles' existence is that of Alex Cora. It was Cora who saved Dustin Pedroia in that first part in '07, starting 19 of the 32 games he played in during the opening two months. He hit .360 with a .407 on-base percentage in April, while Pedroia was hitting .182 in his 19 starts in that initial month.
Like Aviles, Cora was 31 years old when getting his chance, having lived the life of a starter (albeit at second base) four years before.
But, watching Aviles this spring, you don't get the vibe that he is ready to spend what's left of his big league career as a placeholder. He seems like he could be something more, whether it's with this team, at this position or another once the Iglesias debate becomes less of a debate.
The arguments against Aviles begin and end with his fielding prowess. For some, he gives too much of the appearance of a shortstop/third base hybrid, physically thicker than the typical major leaguer playing the position. (It should be noted that Aviles is actually five pounds lighter than when he last served as a starting shortstop, in 2008 with the Royals).
The concern with Kansas City centered around his throwing. It was erratic. He started 89 games at short for that Royals team back in '08 but finished with 10 errors and a .974 fielding percentage. Then came Tommy John surgery, and the adjustments regarding his ability to find first base only got more complicated.
But what has happened -- as has been evidenced this past month -- is Aviles taking the route so many other players who have gone through Tommy John, finding the accuracy of his arm to return over time while discovering more velocity.
He has shown good hands thus far, making just one error (a throwing miscue), while participating in eight double plays. (There will be an additional test once arriving in Boston, however, as it is universally believed the JetBlue Park infield is far superior to that of Fenway Park.)
Still, with spring training still being spring training, the perception of Aviles doesn't figure to be changing. All fans have are video clips of Iglesias playing Michael Jordan to Aviles' Jimmy Chitwood during infield drills, and a bunch of semi-meaningless spring training stats.
Just because Iglesias was sent down doesn't mean the arguments regarding who should be starting shortstop will subside. All some want to see is the Red Sox -- one of the richest teams in baseball -- are starting the season with a guy who came into pro ball via a $1,000 signing bonus (Iglesias' was $6 million), is making barely more than $1 million ($1.2 million), and, once again, was acquired for Yamaico Navarro.
He is hardly viewed as the one Theo Epstein-acquired shortstop that exceeded expectations.
Some of the opinions stem from Aviles' past, while quite a few emanate from Iglesias' future. But, as we sit here, some stock of the situation should be taken.
Question: If Marco Scutaro was still here, would we be saying Iglesias should be rushed to the majors?
Question: Is Aviles a better overall option at shortstop right now, based on what we've seen this spring, than Scutaro?
Answer: Could be.
Aviles' arm is far superior to Scutaro's. His hands might be behind those of Scutaro (who now starts for the Rockies), but it should be noted that the fielding percentage Aviles totaled as the Royals' everyday shortstop was better than what Scutaro turned in last year. And hitting? This is where it gets interesting when talking about the new Sox starter.
Scutaro served his purpose in many ways while in the Red Sox lineup, adequately filling voids at the leadoff spot while managing the sixth-best OPS of any shortstop in baseball last season. He took nearly four pitches per plate appearance in each of the past three seasons, fitting in with the Red Sox' overall hitting philosophy. (He swung at the first pitch the third-fewest times on the team in '11.)
Aviles is different.
Patience has never been the shortstop's game at the plate, with an average of 3.4 pitches per plate appearance over his career. Also, during Aviles' brief time in Boston last season, few Red Sox players offered at the first pitch more than he did (25 percent of the time).
But he hits. When given the opportunity to play, he always has. In that '08 season, after which he finished fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting, Aviles managed an .833 OPS. Other than Nomar Garciaparra and two years of John Valentin, no Sox shortstop since 1974 has had that type of offensive year.
It should also be noted that, despite his ill-timed baserunning miscues in '11, Aviles has one of the best stolen base percentages in the American League since '08, swiping 37 bases in 49 attempts.
We may hit May and realize this was closer to the Cora/Pedroia situation. April has been Aviles' worst month -- .210 with a .237 on-base percentage -- while Iglesias might very well feed off the familiarity of Triple-A along with a encouraging spring training. (He did, for instance, draw walks after falling behind 0-2 on two occasions, marking a first for his career.)
But, then again, the Red Sox might have found something here.
Good enough to start. Good enough to make a positive difference. Good enough to win. That's what Aviles is out to prove. He's done a pretty good job of it thus far.