Rafael Furcal concluded a messy foray into free agency yesterday by officially agreeing to re-sign with the Dodgers. The decision left plenty of distressed suitors. The Red Sox were not among them.
Boston never showed an interest in the top free-agent shortstop on the market this offseason. The club did not call Furcal’s agent, Paul Kinzer, even to kick the tires on the 31-year-old. The development was, in some ways, uncharacteristic for a Red Sox front office that tends to look into every possible means of improving.
Furcal spent much of the year dealing with a back injury that required mid-year surgery. But when he was healthy, he was as good as any shortstop not named Hanley Ramirez. He hit .357 with a .439 OBP and 1.012 OPS, all major-league bests for shortstops with at least 150 plate appearances.
So why didn’t the Sox explore what it might take to acquire him? The reason was simple.
Jed Lowrie, in half a season in the majors, convinced the Red Sox front office that he is an everyday shortstop for the long haul. As such, the team felt it unnecessary to explore the market for other shortstops.
Similarly, the Sox have shown little inclination this winter to shop Lowrie, even though he seemed a good match with clubs (especially the Indians and Diamondbacks) that had catchers to deal and needed a middle infielder. Despite the presence of fellow shortstop Julio Lugo—who is now halfway through a four-year, $36 million contract—it is Lugo, rather than Lowrie, whom the team is looking to deal.
From afar, Lowrie has been monitoring with curiosity, looking for signs of what 2009 will bring for both him and his team.
“My personality is to let them take care of their business. I’m not the one making decisions,” Lowrie said by phone from Arizona, where he is working out at Athletes’ Performance Institute. “At the same time, it’s human nature to be curious and wonder what was going to happen. I watch closely what everyone is doing—not just from a personal standpoint but from a team standpoint. I’m obviously curious to see the direction the team is headed and what (general manager) Theo (Epstein) has in mind.”
To date, all signs suggest that the Sox are constructing a blueprint that features Lowrie as a key up-the-middle presence.
THE ROOKIE YEAR
Prior to the 2008 season, Lowrie seemed expendable. The Sox already had Lugo signed to a deal through the 2010 season. When Lowrie’s name was brought up as part of the possible package for Twins ace Johan Santana last offseason, he was a secondary piece of any deal.
Yet Lowrie assumed unexpected prominence in 2008. Due to the injuries that sidelined Mike Lowell at different times and that left Lugo unable to play at all in the second half, the 24-year-old became a lineup mainstay.
His year-end totals were relatively modest: a .258 average (ranked 16th out of 17 A.L. shortstops with at least 250 plate appearances), .339 OBP (8th), .400 slugging (5th) and .739 OPS (5th). Yet those final numbers, in retrospect, were somewhat deceiving.
In late August, Lowrie was hitting over .300 with an OPS well over .800. During his first six weeks as Lugo’s replacement, his production equaled that of any shortstop in the American League.
His defense, meanwhile, was flawless. Lowrie did not commit an error, and most statistical measures pegged him as one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. The accomplishment was remarkable considering his somewhat challenging path to convert from a college second baseman to a shortstop in the Sox system.
Lowrie had dinner recently with the family that hosted him when he played short in his first full pro season for Single-A Wilmington in 2006. The meal offered an opportunity to reflect on how far he had come.
“I played three months at shortstop in the big leagues without making an error, and they’re bringing up that I made three errors in one inning in A-ball,” said Lowrie. “I got through it, and I learned a lot about myself and about the position. I learned how to play it.”
All the same, the switch-hitter finished the year in a slump, particularly from the left side of the plate. Though Lowrie had performed well as both a left-handed and right-handed hitter for much of his initial season in Boston (see graphic), he suddenly lost the ability to hit as a left-hander in the season’s final five weeks.
Some questioned whether he was capable of success as a switch-hitter at the major-league level. Those inquiries subsided after the year, when it became clear that his struggles stemmed largely from physical limitations.
For most of the year, Lowrie had been taping his left wrist and working with trainers to treat the injured area. Though he never cited it as a limitation during the year, a post-season MRI revealed that Lowrie had been playing with a strain and small non-displaced fracture. By the final month of the season, the pain had become pronounced.
Grip tests revealed that his right hand was roughly twice as strong as his left. The weakened wrist had an obvious impact.
“I knew I was hurt,” Lowrie said. “Clearly, there was a huge discrepancy in the strength of my wrists.
“That last month, that same last month that everyone talks about it being such a grind, my wrist just completely gave out,” he continued. “The right side wasn’t affected as much, but the left side, I really had to battle through it and fight a lot of bad habits. The wrist was really weak. After the year, I got the cortisone shot. After all the inflammation went down, I could really tell how weak my wrist was.”
Following the team’s elimination from the playoffs, Lowrie’s injury was diagnosed by an MRI. He received the cortisone shot and a mandate to rest for the coming weeks.
He resumed activity at the beginning of last week, when he reported to the Athletes’ Performance Institute in Arizona. The start of physical therapy underscored how weak the wrist had become.
Lowrie’s activities included putting an ordinary rubber band around two fingers and trying to spread the fingers apart. He was also asked to squeeze a paper clip.
“When I first started, I could barely do it,” he said. “It’s progressing, but the lack of strength that was there was very noticeable.”
At least in part—perhaps large part—because of the injury, Lowrie’s rookie education was far-reaching. The lessons from his struggles proved pointed but useful.
“If you’re planning on an extended big-league career, you’re going to have to go through every up and down that the game will present,” Lowrie said. “The biggest thing is not necessarily how you perform, but how you react to how you perform—not getting too high and thinking you’re the next coming when you’re hitting .330, and not thinking you’re a terrible player when you’re hitting .200.”
THE 2009 OUTLOOK
Lowrie is now at API, a member of the speed and agility group that includes Sox teammates Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury.
“Jacoby kind of takes care of the speed, Dustin takes care of the agility and I’m just there as kind of a cheerleader, so to speak,” Lowrie joked.
Yet his proximity to those two players is also noteworthy, in that the Sox might feature a middle of the field—second base, shortstop, centerfield—that is entirely homegrown. Still, there are no guarantees of that outcome for the beginning of 2009.
A year ago, Ellsbury and Coco Crisp entered spring training in a competition for center. Though the team viewed Ellsbury as its best option for the long-haul, it did not immediately confer the starting job on the rookie, instead making him earn it.
For now, if the Sox cannot trade Lugo this winter, a similar scenario seems likely to play out in spring training. While the team views Lowrie as the preferred long-term option, the blueprint for the position in 2009 remains incomplete.
“If they are both on the team, we have to figure out how it best suits our team,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “But I don't know that answer right now. Lugo really worked hard to try to get back, and he just could not quite get there at the end. Saying that, at a time when we really needed somebody to help us, Lowrie came in and was really productive. Now, again, the last six, eight weeks, left-handers were tough for him, and we recognize that.
“I guess if we get to a point where if we ruffle somebody's feathers because we have a player or two that thinks they should be playing that aren't, that probably means our team is in pretty good shape,” the manager continued. “I would rather have it that way than not have enough players.”
Lowrie does not complain about that likelihood. Instead, he embraces the possibility of demonstrating that he is worthy of the starting role that many believe he is capable of handling.
“I relish the opportunity. Competition is going to make everyone better,” said Lowrie. “It’s going to make me better as a player. It will make the team better if we’re competing. In the scope of what’s best for the team and myself, having that doubt and uncertainty is kind of a motivation.”
If all goes according to plan for both Lowrie and the Sox, that competition may finally yield some stability at a position that has been a merry-go-round. The succession of shortstops who have arrived via free agency or trade since Nomar Garciaparra’s departure in 2004—Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Alex Gonzalez, Lugo—could finally come to a halt in the form of a homegrown talent.
Alex Speier is a senior writer for WEEI.com.