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Approach here isn’t very defensible

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 28, 2012
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - Someday - maybe when hell freezes over - we will hear a Red Sox manager or general manager say that the team is sacrificing offense for defense at shortstop.

We thought this might be the time, but the rejection button on defense was pushed again when Bobby Valentine became the umpteenth consecutive Red Sox manager to announce a nondefensive shortstop as the winner of the battle.

Mike Aviles is their man. He has had a very good camp. He did nothing to lose the job. He has hit well (.313), which is what the Red Sox love in their shortstops, and he has made all of the routine plays without issue, except for one throwing error.

The Red Sox don’t mind “routine’’ and “average’’ at shortstop as long as the guy potentially has a plus bat. After all, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, and Cody Ross don’t give you enough offense to carry a weak-hitting shortstop.

You need Aviles to put you over the top.

Valentine, who had been a big advocate for Iglesias, said he saw a lack of confidence in him after an 0-for-3 game.

“He’s working on things,’’ Valentine said. “About two weeks ago, he had a mechanic that looked like it was real functional, and I think an 0-for-3 took him out of it. That’s one of the things he has to develop - a confidence in his program.’’

When you’ve been told for so long that your offense isn’t good enough, and that you need to show you can hit to make it, and then you go 0 for 3, it is understandable why a 22-year-old kid might not feel real sure about himself.

In his last game, Monday in Clearwater vs. the Phillies, Iglesias reached base three times on a fielder’s choice, base hit, and walk.

I don’t think Mark Belanger ever felt real confident at the plate, but I’ll bet Jim Palmer loved having him behind him.

We will take Valentine at his word, that it was a near-unanimous decision in that meeting room that Aviles should get the nod over Iglesias. No power struggle. No disagreement with the front office. They were all on the same page.

Aviles is a very good baseball player, but seriously, there is no comparison defensively.

I know it. Valentine knows it. Ben Cherington knows it.

Apparently, more time in Pawtucket will solve his offensive issues, not time in the majors.

Valentine said he never really saw the great range that everyone spoke about and that balls were getting through the hole even with Iglesias out there. Valentine thought it was unfair that when a ball got through the infield with Aviles out there, we all said, “Jose would have had that.’’

Truth is, in most cases, he would have.

Pitchers love great defenders behind them. Josh Beckett often talks about how beneficial it was that he had Alex Gonzalez playing behind him for six years (mostly in Florida).

The Red Sox didn’t commit to Gonzalez because they didn’t believe he had the offense for an American League lineup.

Since Nomar Garciaparra’s run ended in 2004, the Red Sox have started 19 players at shortstop.

They went through Orlando Cabrera very quickly. They replaced him with Edgar Renteria, more of an offensive shortstop. But he didn’t provide enough offense, so they shipped him out, and then used a host of guys, including Julio Lugo.

Defense never seems to be the overriding factor at a position that seems to be oriented toward it more than others. We wonder if some of Bill James’s metrics indicate that a defensive shortstop isn’t as important as many think.

Iglesias hit only .200 in spring training, but he never looked overmatched at the plate.

He struck out three times in 25 at-bats. He bunted, moved runners along, hit balls into the gap, went the other way. His average wasn’t good, but did anyone expect it to be, and more important, did anyone care?

If something happened to Aviles - trade or injury - Valentine said that Iglesias would be able to handle the job. Well, of course he could, and it would be an upgrade.

“Just because God delays does not mean God denies,’’ Valentine said. “[Iglesias] will not be denied. That’s what I told him and that’s what Ben believes. Ben told him, ‘It’s not if, it’s when.’ ’’

But Sox fans are being denied the chance to watch a magician at shortstop.

Aviles is a better option as an offensive player right now, but we doubt he’ll hit as well as he did in spring training, and then the difference between the two will be even smaller.

Valentine made a point of saying early in spring training that the Red Sox had problems defensively on the left side of the infield last season. A hobbling Youkilis was at third, with Marco Scutaro at shortstop.

Have the Red Sox improved that? Not really.

Youkilis is healthier and should move better, but his range is what it is. Aviles, as we have pointed out, will handle routine plays, and he has greatly improved on the backhand, but to say the two will instill great confidence in their pitching staff is a stretch.

Every now and then, you need a fielder to step up and make a play that gives the pitcher a little extra adrenaline. I’m not sure the Red Sox have that without a vacuum cleaner at shortstop. And I’m sure they have a zillion internal stats to tell me I’m full of hot air.

I understand that this move isn’t likely to be permanent. I understand that Valentine feels Iglesias will be a very good major leaguer and that Cherington believes the huge investment the Sox made in the Cuban shortstop will pay off.

They just don’t believe that the time is now. They will likely make the same call on catcher Ryan Lavarnway.

As we have pointed out, every organization reaches a point where it has to commit to a young player. It may be painful at first, but you usually have to go through a period where you take your lumps while the young player gains the experience he needs to take the next step.

What the Red Sox did Tuesday was the safe thing.

Who could argue with sending a kid down for more seasoning? Who could deny that rushing a kid to the majors is a bad thing?

They kept to their script.

They did what you expected them to do. They chose offense.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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