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The shortstop whole

Scutaro at ease on the big stage

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / December 5, 2009

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Before Marco Scutaro had gotten a word out at his news conference yesterday afternoon at Fenway Park, he put on the No. 16 jersey offered by general manger Theo Epstein and then, with cameras flashing, struck a pose with arms crossed and shoulder back.

He looked comfortable in the Red Sox home jersey, comfortable in front of the lights, even as he is about to deal with the scrutiny of being another in a lengthy list of shortstops trying to stabilize that position in Boston. No one since Nomar Garciaparra has been able to keep control of shortstop in Fenway Park for more than a season - unless you count Alex Gonzalez’s two stops - and Scutaro may not either.

With the next shortstop up and coming - the Sox are extremely high on Jose Iglesias - Scutaro will serve as a bridge to the next generation of homegrown talent.

“We were looking to upgrade at shortstop,’’ Epstein said. “We were pretty clear about that going into the winter. Right from the start, we identified Marco as the best free agent and a guy who would be the best fit for this ball club.’’

Scutaro signed a two-year deal for at least $12.5 million ($5 million per year with a $1 million signing bonus and $1.5 million buyout) with a club option at $6 million or a player option at $3 million. The deal got done before the winter meetings because there was another team in hot pursuit. That team - the A’s - nearly stole Scutaro.

“There was a team that was making a real good offer, but I can say this, I took a little less money just to come here, to have a chance to win a ring,’’ Scutaro said yesterday.

Scutaro had a career year in 2009, despite battling plantar fasciitis in his right heel that ended his season two weeks early. His batting average (.282), on-base percentage (.379), and slugging percentage (.409) were all career highs, though Scutaro has only been an everyday player the last two years.

“When someone has a career year, a best of his career year at age 33, I think you have to look at it with some scrutiny, and we did at the beginning of this process,’’ Epstein said. “You want to see if you can identify factors that contributed to it, how many of those factors are repeatable, and how many are just random or luck. The more we looked at Marco’s career, and broke down his performance from the time he played in the minor leagues through his transition period into the big leagues to his career as a utility guy to the last couple years, it’s clear there’s been improvement.’’

Epstein cited Scutaro’s plate discipline, his contact rate, his ability to hit the ball hard to all fields, and his “legitimate pop at times to the pull side’’ as reasons the Sox don’t foresee a significant regression.

“We don’t expect him to go out every year and repeat what he did last year, that would be unrealistic to expect that,’’ Epstein said. “But I think we feel like we’re seeing a really good player finally get his chance, and make those improvements that players make late in their career, and still have enough physical ability to go out and produce.’’

Scutaro is expected to be an upgrade over the paltry offense the Sox got from their shortstops last season and he should be steady defensively.

“Marco’s got great hands,’’ Epstein said. “He’s got good range. He knows how to play all the infield positions. We really liked the way he played shortstop when he was given the everyday job. Subjectively, he’s a guy that plays the game with a lot of confidence. Strong, accurate arm. Great instincts.’’

Combine that with a player expected to grind through at-bats, and who described his game as “just trying to get on base, try to hit the ball to the right side, and do little things like that,’’ and the Sox are content with their choice at shortstop.

They also appeared that way with the signings of Edgar Renteria and Julio Lugo.

But the Sox have committed far fewer dollars and years to Scutaro than they had to any of their recent shortstop signings. They like the idea of Scutaro taking over in the interim (before Iglesias). And, in that meantime, Scutaro appears just as comfortable with the idea of Boston, even if he left some money on the table.

“You get to a point where you just want to live the experience, you want to be in the World Series, you want to win the ring,’’ Scutaro said. “And I think this is the perfect team to go there.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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