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Lowrie is no longer sold short

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  April 19, 2011 11:57 AM

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Jed Lowrie is 27 years old, which is often the peak season of a ballplayer's career. He's no kid, just eight months Dustin Pedroia's junior, yet because of a cruel run of injuries and illness that limited him to 87 games the past two seasons, he's still trying to establish his name in the major leagues.

But it's happening. It's legitimate. And it's about time.

Lowrie, despite some perceptions, does not belong alongside Sam Fuld on the 2011 Gritty Gutty All-Stars, as chosen by select fans and media members desperate for their next Eckstein and wondering whatever became of Bo Hart.

Perhaps it's been forgotten because he's been out of sight, out of mind for long chunks of the past two seasons, or maybe it's because his appearance suggests he fits the scrappy suit, but Lowrie is a talent, one with an impressive pedigree.

He's a former first-round draft choice (45th overall in 2005) who hit over .399 as a sophomore at Stanford, earned two first-team All-America selections, was regarded by Baseball America as the No. 5 prospect in the Sox organization in 2008 (behind Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Lars Anderson, and Justin Masterson), delivered a winning hit that postseason as a rookie, and in 530 at-bats over parts of four big league seasons has hit 15 homers and driven in 90 runs.

His numbers are even more impressive under closer examination. In 202 at-bats since the beginning of last season, he has hit .322 with 11 homers, 25 extra-base hits, and 114 total bases. And dropping his 76 plate-appearance sample when he hit .147 in 2009 while first foolishly trying to play through and then recover from wrist problems, his career numbers would look like this: 147 games, 462 at-bats, 13 homers, 79 RBIs, .286 average, .462 slugging percentage. The only shortstops since Lowrie's debut in 2008 to equal or surpass those numbers in a single season are Hanley Ramirez (three times), Troy Tulowitzki (twice), Stephen, Drew Derek Jeter, Jose Reyes, and Jason Bartlett during his outlier season in 2009.

There may be some tangles in our logic there, but the conclusion remains the same: Lowrie is capable of being among the game's finest offensive shortstops, and those who get paid to recognize such matters should have seen it coming. But it is Lowrie's sizzling start to the new season -- after his 4 for 5, four-RBI performance on Patriots Day, he's hitting .516 with a 1.320 OPS through 33 plate appearances this season -- that has fans and media alike buzzing, with varying degrees of insight and hyperbole.

naehringtimfinn419.jpgYes, he's been noticed. Within my first hour here at the Morrissey Boulevard headquarters this morning, I cranked out a Globe 10.0 episode with Bob Ryan and a podcast with Nick Cafardo and Daigo Fujiwara in which Topic A in both was Lowrie. Even those of us who came into the season -- pathetic humblebrag alert -- expecting big things from him didn't figure he's be such a significant factor so soon.

Elsewhere, Dan Lamothe of the terrific Red Sox Monster blog draws compelling comparison between Lowrie and Bill Mueller, a player as universally appreciated by Red Sox fans as anyone I can recall. I'll also nod my approval for the Tim Naehring comp made in a Sons of Sam Horn thread titled only slightly facetiously, "Jed Lowrie Turns Water In To Wine," though here's hoping Lowrie's history of injuries ceases where Naehring's never did.

Then there was this headline on widely respected numbers-cruncher Ron Shandler's piece in USA Today this morning: "The only thing standing in the way of super-stardom for Jed Lowrie is a place to play." Even I wouldn't hit those heights of hype -- and Shandler's reasoned article actually didn't, either -- but I will reiterate something I said before the start of the season:

Lowrie, with good health and his name among the top nine on the scorecard every day, has an excellent chance of being the third-most-productive shortstop in the majors this season. And really, there's not an ounce of hyperbole there if you consider the competition (or play fantasy baseball and realized the shortage of quality shortstops on draft night).

There's Tulo, who is on his own high-altitude planet, and Hanley, who is jacked like an NFL tight end and really should be in the outfield by now, and then . . . who? Drew, possibly. Elvis Andrus or Starlin Castro could blossom. Reyes and Jimmy Rollins? Brittle and/or fading. And you know better than to give me Derek Jeter, whose 2010 season was essentially even with that of the player Lowrie should replace.

Which brings us to the elephant in the clubhouse: Marco Scutaro, the incumbent at shortstop and a player who earned the respect of his teammates and manager last season by putting up adequate numbers (.275, 11 homers, .721 OPS) while playing 150 games despite a shoulder/neck injury.

One of Terry Francona's perceived flaws is his willingness to stick with veteran players through prolonged slumps or at the expense of a younger player who may prove superior. (Think Millar vs. Youkilis/Olerud, 2005.)

Based on potential and his performance last year in the second half, Lowrie should have been in the lineup every day to begin the season. Francona's reluctance to do so was somewhat understandable given Lowrie's injury history -- he needed to demonstrate reliability.

Fair enough. Given that he's started four of the past five games -- and has eight RBIs and three two-hit games in that stretch -- it appears the manager is aware of what he has and what he must do. Lowrie can no longer lose at-bats to inferior players.

While Scutaro's selflessness is easy to appreciate, it also must be noted that he's a 35-year-old veteran of 10 big-league seasons who became a full-time starting shortstop just two years ago.

He's played 557 games at short, 322 at second, 98 at third, 18 in the outfield, and three at first base in his career. He's a utilityman who made the most of every opportunity. That's to be commended.

But he's a stopgap as a starter who is best suited to be a fine backup plan should injury or illness thwart Lowrie again. The hunch here is that Scutaro would do so, despite the disappointment, with his usual team-first attitude.

He knows who he is. And given his baseball intelligence, chances are he recognized who Jed Lowrie is and what he can become long before the majority of us caught a clue.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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