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At this position, it's a very short stop

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  November 4, 2008 08:26 AM

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In Boston, at least, the position could not be more aptly named. From Orlando Cabrera to Edgar Renteria to Alex Gonzalez and now to Julio Lugo, the layover always has been brief. Inarguably, it has been a short stop.

MAZZ'S HOT STOVE SERIES: Starting today and ending on Nov. 13, the day before free agents can sign with any team, the Globe's Tony Massarotti will tackle an offseason topic of interest to Red Sox fans. Check out the schedule below.
  • Tuesday, Nov. 4:
    Shortstop in focus
  • Wednesday, Nov. 5:
    Yankees: Under contruction
  • Thursday, Nov. 6:
    Manny of the moment
  • Friday, Nov. 7:
    Top prize: Mark Teixeira
  • Tuesday, Nov. 11:
    Potential Sox trade partners
  • Wednesday, Nov. 12:
    Big-ticket starters and the art of building a bullpen
  • Thursday, Nov. 13:
    Tony's best- and worst-case offseason scenarios for the Red Sox and Yankees

  • Sox' 5 biggest offseason questions
  • Player-by-player Sox overview
  • Big names in play
  • Agent could Boras to death
  • Red Sox aren't afraid to be bold
  • Sox look soft in the middle
  • And so today, as America gathers to elect its next leader, we instead pose the question:

    Who will be the next Red Sox shortstop?

    Think of the possibilities: With Michael Douglas playing the lead role, we produced "The American President." Maybe Kevin Costner can become "The Red Sox Shortstop." Easy storyline there: A man takes over a position that has experienced less stability than the stock market, then brings productivity, grace, and dignity to a place that badly needs it.

    Added benefit: the ageless Annette Bening co-stars.

    For those keeping score, the Red Sox now have had six regular shortstops in the last five seasons, which is as much a meaningless statistical aberration as it is any sign of volatility. During the same period, the Sox have been to four postseasons and three American League Championship Series while winning two world titles. The Red Sox are building teams first, which means they're going to hit on some positions, miss on others.

    At midseason 2007, just before the All-Star break, general manager Theo Epstein was asked about the problems the Sox have had at shortstop and offered the following reply: "You sure you don't want to talk about second base instead?" Indeed, from 2003 through 2006, the Sox had a succession of second basemen. including Todd Walker, Mark Bellhorn, Tony Graffanino and Mark Loretta. All of them generally played well, Bellhorn serving as a key contributor on the 2004 club that won the world title.

    Now the Sox second baseman is none other than Dustin Pedroia, who is one of the best players in baseball.

    But shortstop? That has been Theo's Waterloo. Beginning in 2004, when Epstein made the gutsy, franchise-altering trade that swapped Nomar Garciaparra for Cabrera, the Red Sox have changed shortstops like wiper blades. It really has been nothing short of an annual hardball transfusion. Going back to 2003, in fact, no Sox shortstop has made it through two full seasons as the starter, suggesting that the Sox have somehow constructed a dead-end position in the middle of the infield.

    How many rotaries have you driven with a stop sign in the middle?

    For the sake of accuracy, here is the lineage: Garciaparra, Cabrera, Renteria, Gonzalez, Lugo, and now Jed Lowrie, the last of whom assumed the lease after Lugo was lost to a leg injury. Those obsessed with technicalities might point out that, due to Lugo's ailment, Lowrie never was truly named the starter, but we all know in our hearts that a healthy Lugo wasn't getting his job back.

    Which brings us to where we are now.

    This week, along with the rest of his peers, Epstein is at baseball's annual general managers meetings, surrounded by the breathtaking views of the Pacific. On those cliffs, baseball's 2008-09 offseason will truly begin. The GM meetings typically are where the game's decision-makers do their fact-finding for the coming weeks, when teams will make many of the decisions that could very well determine the outcome of next year's playoff races.

    For the Red Sox, shortstop certainly does not seem like a priority given the club's issues at catcher and in the middle of the lineup. Nonetheless, one can only wonder: What if the Sox must include Lowrie in a trade for a middle-of-the-order bat? What if someone will take Lugo? How do the Sox really feel about the parcel between second and third bases at Fenway Park, a piece of land that seemingly nobody wants to buy?

    In recent years, during the ownership and administration headed by John Henry, the Sox have made many things clear. One is that they are not afraid to think big. Another is that they are not afraid to cut their losses. As evidence of the latter, the Sox cut bait with Renteria after just one season, agreeing to pay $11 million of the remaining $29 million on his four-year, $40 million contract, meaning the Sox ultimately paid Renteria a whopping $22 million for one year of service during which he committed a major league-leading 30 errors.

    Think of it this way: In 2008, the Sox were still paying $3.67 million of Renteria's salary with the Detroit Tigers. That is on top of the $9 million they paid Lugo, who was the worst defensive shortstop in baseball (at least based on errors) during the first half of the season. Should the Red Sox find a taker for Lugo this offseason, they will find themselves in a familiar predicament: paying a shortstop to play for someone else. Lugo has two years and $18 million remaining on his contract, and in all likelihood, the Sox would have to eat at least half of his salary in any deal, which means they'd be paying him in the vicinity of $4.5 million this season to ply his trade elsewhere. All of that has made shortstop nothing short of a money pit, which is something the Red Sox can afford only because they have a license to print cash.

    Lugo's appeal to a potential trade partner would be based on the fact that his contract is short and relatively inexpensive (again, with the Sox picking up a large chunk of his salary), particularly in comparison to the more expensive shortstops currently available. This winter, in the event you are wondering, Renteria, Cabrera and Rafael Furcal, among others, are free agents at a position that has riddled the Sox in recent years.

    Given that history, the Sox are not likely to bid on any of them so much as they are likely to hand the keys to Lowrie, who was sure-handed, reasonably productive and absurdly cheap. Lowrie (who played with a sprain and small non-displaced fracture in his left wrist from May to October) batted just .195 and struck out 43 times in his final 153 at-bats of the regular season -- from the left side, the switch hitter batted .222 for the season and struck out once every 3.3 at-bats -- but the Red Sox seem to believe that Lowrie has the necessary offensive and defensive tools to be an everyday shortstop.

    If they're right, the Sox won't be making any moves at shortstop this offseason and they will be celebrating newfound stability at this position come this time next year.

    If they're wrong, the keys will be left under the mat for the next man who dares venture into the pit.

    Tony's Top 5

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    About Mazz

    Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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