I was bellied up at a bar in Vail village one evening early last year -- the Sunday immediately following St. Patrick’s Day, if that gives some inkling as to the dearth of patrons on hand -- making small talk with the bartender, which in its own right was rather difficult seeing as he talked as boisterous and as large as as the drifts of snow on the adjacent deck.
Of course, these days, when the "Where ya from?" is posed, "Boston" immediately shifts to talk of baseball and the Red Sox. Turned out our pal was a Dodgers fan, and this being long before the arrival of Joe Torre or Manny Ramirez, he proceeded to lecture us on the skills, importance, and value of his favorite player.
I kid you not.
This was, of course, a player that appeared in just 49 games for Los Angeles in 2006, hitting a robust .219, driving in 10, with an on-base percentage of .278. Lugo had an OPS of .545 for the Dodgers, and a .267 slugging percentage. Hey, what wasn’t to like?
Yet, he still maintained his overall point. "Boston is going to love Julio Lugo."
We've all made erroneous claims when it comes to the fickle game of baseball. I was a year early on Cliff Lee's Cy Young candidacy, perhaps too anticipatory on the wild card chances of the Pirates in 2008. I said last August the Red Sox had zero chance of winning the World Series, a prediction that pretty much had my respectability card revoked at the pick 'em factory. But I think we can agree that my barkeep's statement that night might have been the dumbest prophecy we're likely to hear for some time. Then again, I didn't think NBC would actually swoon over Mao Zedong, but I incredulously stand corrected.
From Day One of Lugo's arrival in Boston, he's managed to have Red Sox fans become less enamored with him, quite a task when you think about it since his signing two offseasons ago sparked about as much excitement as the climax scene in a Lifetime movie. Yes, they won a World Series with him manning shortstop. Doug Mirabelli has two World Series rings too. What's your point?
But any lingering love there might have been for Lugo, buried somewhere beneath the memories of Edgar Renteria and Alex Gonzalez, has fizzled into oblivion in 2008, when Lugo managed to drive in just 22 runs in 261 at-bats before going down with a quad injury. To be fair, fans never root openly for someone to get sidelined. But with Lugo, that just happened to be a convenient set of circumstances. So, too, his "setback," or whatever the Red Sox are calling the process of not letting him anywhere near the field.
The signings of Lugo and J.D. Drew were odd in that the Red Sox seemed to outbid only themselves for a pair of players that the fans were dubious about to begin with. We're almost two seasons into the deals and little has changed, except for the questions that swirl around the Red Sox front office when it comes to making long-term decisions about its farm system.
Now, granted, there's little to doubt about an organization that has delivered a pair of titles over the past four years, but if we really want to understand how they see their vaunted farm system, it gets a bit confusing. After all, they essentially gave Brandon Moss and Craig Hansen away in the Manny Ramirez ménage a trios and relegated Jed Lowrie to trade bait after the Lugo signing. When it comes to pitching, the Sox seem hell-bent on not signing big-name pitchers to long-term deals, more than happy to toss the kids (Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson, etc.) to the major league wolves. When it's guys like Moss and Lowrie on their way up the ladder, they're usurped by overpriced talent that nobody could quite ever figure out in the first place.
Of course, Lowrie was the difference yesterday in a Red Sox win that could prove truly important down the stretch, swatting an 11th-inning home run that propelled Boston to victory, the final nail in the Lugo coffin for '08. Would Lugo have hit the homer? Reactionary answer: No. Pondered answer: What, are you nuts?
In 69 fewer at-bats this season, Lowrie now has 10 more runs batted in than the incumbent Lugo. He's hitting .326 with runners in scoring position. Lugo was hitting .139. If the fans had a vote, it would darned well be near unanimous that Lowrie is the shortstop for now and the future.
What to do with the $18 million owed to Lugo the next two years? Not to say told you so, but there were plenty who would have refrained from the contract in the first place, dealt with Gonzalez one more year, and then open the door for Lowrie this season. The Red Sox though, didn't seem to have the same sort of faith in Lowrie that they did in Dustin Pedroia, who was handed the second base job last spring.
I'm sure they have valid reasons for that, but when a player like Lowrie comes along and only accentuates just how plain awful Lugo has been here for two years, well, we have to wonder, don't we?
I can only wonder what my bartender friend would have to say about it all. Maybe he's still slinging drinks in Eagle County. Maybe he's a pro scout for the Mariners these days.
I wonder what he thinks of Manny Mania in LA, and whether he likes the Dodgers' chances of overtaking the Diamondbacks. Most of all, I wonder what kind of hallucinogens he was on during the latter half of the 2006 season. Because I've watched Julio Lugo, and friends, I wouldn't dare ever make the same claim to residents of whatever city he will call home in 2009.
Although, before we fall head over heels for Lowrie, the kids over at Surviving Grady keenly point out this little tidbit in his profile on the web site of his alma mater, Stanford:
"Favorite Pro Sports Athletes: Brett Boone and Alex Rodriguez."
So, well, there's that.