FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Amid all the talk of juicing in baseball, here is something to celebrate: Julio Lugo is off milk.
"I feel better. I was sick to my stomach there for a couple of years,’’ Lugo said this morning at the Red Sox’ spring training facility, where he revealed that he suffers from lactose intolerance. "I try to stay away from milk as much as I can now. It’s made a difference."
All together now:
Now entering the third year of a four-year, $36 million contract, Lugo entered this spring looking like an $18 million write-off. Jed Lowrie, steady as a rookie, seemed a far more logical choice to be the starter at shortstop. None of that has changed today as the Red Sox inch closer to the start of their Grapefruit League schedule, though a reconditioned Lugo clearly has spent a significant chunk of the offseason reinvesting in baseball.
Which raises an interesting question:
What if he can, you know, play?
Here’s something that may surprise you: Among the 11 American League shortstops with at least 300 plate appearances last season, Lugo finished second in on-base percentage (.356) to only Derek Jeter (.360). The biggest drop-offs in Lugo’s game came on defense and with regard to power output, two of the primary areas the inspired the club to sign him to a deal that currently looks, well, Offermanesque.
At this stage, Lugo has been such a disappointment that virtually no one seems to expect anything from him. Of course, he doesn't necessarily feel that way.
"You just come into camp like you’re going to play and hope everything gets back to normal," he said. "That’s about it."
Actually, based on the last two years, what the Sox are looking for is the abnormal, which is to say that they hope to see the player they thought they were signing in the first place. No one is expecting Lugo to hit .300 with 20 home runs and 80 RBI, but if the Red Sox could get something in the range of .265 with 8-10 home runs, 30 doubles and 20 steals to go along with decent defense, there would be every reason to give him the job and employ Lowrie as the utility man.
If that sounds like a criticism of Lowrie, it isn’t. Lugo and Lowrie are very different players blessed with very different strengths. The former more athletic, the latter more fundamentally sound. Lowrie, too, has the ability to play more positions, a versatility that could of particular value to a Sox club intent on being cautious with third baseman Mike Lowell. And don't forget, Mark Kotsay is expected to miss the first month of the season.
Instead of shuttling Kevin Youkilis across the diamond every few days, wouldn’t the Sox just be better off spot starting Lowrie at third every now and then?
Of course, all of that depends on the performance of Lugo, who can offer significant value. As general manager Theo Epstein has pointed out on more than one occasion, the Red Sox place relatively little emphasis on errors and fielding percentage when it comes to evaluating defensive ability. Still, most everyone in the Boston organization agrees that Lugo’s 2008 campaign was nothing short of a defensive train wreck, which made the drop in power -- he ranked last in slugging among the same 11 AL shortstops with at least 300 plate appearances last year -- all the more costly.
But if Lugo can be merely an average player in 2008, the Red Sox could be far better off for it.
"There’s a lot that he does bring [when on top of his game]," Sox manager Terry Francona said when asked about Lugo’s potential strengths. "When a guy gets hurt, people tend to forget and we don’t want to do that. That’s why we reminded him -- he comes in, it’s a new year, clean slate. He looks like he worked hard. He’s thick, stronger. I know we haven’t played a game yet but the ball does seem to be coming off the bat good, which is a good sign. That’s good news."
The obvious follow-up:
But for how long?
With regard to Lowrie, at this stage, the Red Sox only can expect so much. Last season, for a time, the club entertained the idea of giving Lowrie some work at first base, but they didn’t want to bog him down with too much in what amounted to his rookie year. Lowrie ended up being the starting shortstop for a team that reached Game 7 of the League Championship Series, and he played the position so well for 49 regular-season games (zero errors) that he deserves to be called the favorite at this stage of camp.
But again, this isn’t solely about him; it’s about what makes the Red Sox the best team. Just as it serves the Sox to currently employ Justin Masterson as a reliever -- this still leaves open the door for him to start someday -- so it is with Lowrie in an all-purpose role.
As for Lugo’s lactose intolerance, one can only wonder if an aversion to dairy products really could be responsible for so much frustration. Lugo said that he learned of the problem late last season with the help of Sox doctor Larry Ronan, who referred the player to a specialist. Lugo subsequently spent the offseason rebuilding his body and his mind, leading him to proclaim that he is now in the best shape of his career.
Only the effect on his game remains to be seen.
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