FORT MYERS, Fla.—In recent years, it has not been unusual for the Red Sox to report to spring training with the roster all but set. Barring injury, players have often come to camp knowing exactly what the starting lineup, rotation and even bench and bullpen would look like.
This year, that is not the case. For the second straight spring, the Sox have a legitimate battle for a starting role at a premium on-field position.
Last year, it was Coco Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury who tried to prove themselves worthy of starting in centerfield. Now, both Julio Lugo, a veteran who is half-way through a significant four-year contract, and Jed Lowrie, who impressed in his first taste of the majors last year, have their eyes set on the role of Boston’s starting shortstop.
The Red Sox are going to let the performance of the two players this spring determine their roles for the start of the coming season.
“I don’t think there’s any way to get around (the fact that there’s a shortstop competition),” said manager Terry Francona. “I can’t sit here today and tell you who the starting shortstop’s going to be.”
The notion of a starting controversy is foreign not just to the Sox but also to the players in question. Lowrie last went into a season without a defined position as a freshman at Stanford in 2003. Lugo has been a big-league starting shortstop since that time.
The two players insist that they will maintain a respectful on-field relationship this spring, despite the circumstances. Nonetheless, both players make clear that they want badly to take the prize away from one another.
‘RED SOX FANS HAVEN’T SEEN THE JULIO LUGO I CAN BE’
Lugo recognizes that his time in Boston has not gone as either he or the Sox planned after the first two seasons of a four-year, $36 million deal he signed after the 2006 season. His offensive and defensive struggles have been well chronicled.
Lugo has hit .247 with a .314 OBP as a member of the Sox with a .657 OPS (sixth worst among big-league shortstops with at least 200 games played over the last two years) while committing 35 errors. Before he suffered a torn quadriceps muscle that kept him off the field in the second half of last year, he hit .268 with a .355 OBP (second best among A.L. shortstops with 200 plate appearances)
“I just haven’t put it all together, my hitting and my fielding at the same time. It’s been hard for me to feel comfortable,” said Lugo, who arrived in Fort Myers in what he described as the best shape of his career. “The Red Sox fans haven’t seen the Julio Lugo that I can be, how I can play. Everywhere I go I’ve been one of the fans’ favorites when I was playing good. That’s what I want to do, so they can have a little taste and enjoy it more.”
But while the 33-year-old professes his great enjoyment of Boston, he admits that he is uninterested in life as a bench or utility player for the Red Sox. In the past, he has discussed how unpleasant he found life in his half season with the Dodgers in 2006, when he pinballed between positions.
“You want to be where people want you … Nobody’s going to be happy on the bench. I’m not going to be happy,” said Lugo. “I don’t worry about that. I just come here, do what I do, play baseball the best I can. I can’t make those decisions. They know what they’re going to get from me. It’s not my first rodeo.”
Lugo declined to answer whether he would request a trade if he were not the starter, though his non-answer was revealing enough.
“We’re going to have to see, we’re going to have to wait to see what happens,” said Lugo. “We’re going to see at the end of (spring training).”
Of course, the Sox explored the possibility of trading Lugo this offseason, but proved unable to find a match with another club. He notion of trading him is a challenging one due to his contract and performance.
‘I WANT THE JOB’
Like Lugo, Lowrie makes no secret of his desire to earn the job of starting shortstop. The 24-year-old, who added muscle in an offseason split between Athletes’ Performance in Arizona and the Athlete’s Compound in Tampa, believes that he is capable of succeeding as a starting shortstop in the big leagues after spending a half-season in that role in 2008.
“I want the job. I want to be the starting shortstop,” said Lowrie. “It's hard for me to say I'm not worried about or concerned about the competition, because obviously I want the starting job. But at the same time, I know that all I can control is what I do, and I'll let the guys who are paid to make decisions make those decisions.”
Lowrie hit .258 with a .739 OPS in 81 (49 error-free contests at short) as a rookie last year. His numbers were even more impressive until a tailspin over the final five weeks of the regular season that was prompted by a non-displaced fracture in his left wrist.
“From the left side it really hindered my ability to swing with any sort of power, any sort of direct swing, so to speak,” said Lowrie. “My wrist was just not strong enough to keep the barrel above the ball.”
The shortstop, who has also shown both a willingness and ability to move around the diamond to play second and third (despite his preference for short), believes that the offseason recovery of his wrist as well as the strength program he followed this winter can allow him to add more pop to his game. While he describes himself as being at his best when he is a doubles hitter, focused on driving the ball into the gaps, he does believe that there should be a power progression.
“My freshman year at Stanford, I hit zero home runs, everything to the warning track,” said Lowrie. “Then I came back, got a little stronger and the balls went out. I’m not saying I’m going to come in and hit 20 or 30 homers this year, but I feel like I continue to get stronger and the balls go a little bit further.”
AN OPEN CHALLENGE
Neither Lugo nor Lowrie is shying from the notion of a competition to be the shortstop. To the contrary, both seem to welcome it, bolstered by the belief that the challenge will bring out the best of their abilities.
“You see two guys in and out, you think it’s a competition,” said Lugo. “People see it like that. It’s good. I don’t mind that.”
“It’s always a competition. There’s always someone looking to take your job or to one-up you,” agreed Lowrie. “If you don’t feel that way, you’re going to slip.”
How the competition plays out remains to be seen. But in a spring training camp that typically sees most of its competition for the last spots on the roster, the fact that the starting shortstop job is officially up for grabs adds a bit of spice to the spring.
“We’d like both of them to play really well,” said Francona. “If we have a tough decision to make because both guys are playing good, that would be a great position to be in.”