Lowrie, Lugo to battle for shortstop role
Both bring solid credentials, but neither a clear-cut front-runner
BOSTON -- It is a position that has been in a perpetual state of transition for the Red Sox since that memorable date of July 31, 2004, when Nomar Garciaparra was traded to the Cubs. Shortstop has indeed been a short stop for all those who have suited up at the position since Nomah left town.
Orlando Cabrera had those three memorable months at the end of 2004, but the Red Sox decided to part ways with the free agent following that championship season, at which time Edgar Renteria was signed for four years. But Renteria struggled to gain comfort in Boston from the start, and was traded after one year and 30 errors. Then came Alex Gonzalez, who put on a defensive clinic in '06, contributed very little offensively and signed with the Reds in '07.
Next on the list was Julio Lugo, who signed for four years at $36 million heading into 2007. After struggling mightily with the bat that year, Lugo got off to a rough start with the glove in '08, tore his left quad just before the All-Star break and didn't play again for the rest of the season. That created the opening for the next shortstop, as Jed Lowrie came on as a rookie and held his own amid the pressure of a pennant race.
And now? The position as again at a crossroads. There isn't a player earmarked for the position entering Spring Training. Instead, Lugo and Lowrie are set for an old-fashioned position battle, one the Red Sox have hardly had in recent years.
"What we'll do is we'll sit down with both of them the first day [of Spring Training], we'll explain to them how we feel," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "And we'll try to put the best team out on the field. I'm also a firm believer that things take care of themselves. We're not going to look at their batting average every day and things like that. We're just going to try to put our ballclub in the best position to win. However that ends up, it will be my responsibility."
Second baseman Dustin Pedroia will wait and see along with everyone else to find out who will be his next double-play partner.
"I've heard Julio and Jed have been working out extremely hard all offseason to get prepared," Pedroia said. "I don't know [who is going to start]. That's not my job to decide who plays and who doesn't. They're both good players and we're excited to have them both. We're going to need them both to accomplish our goals, that's for sure."
Here is a breakdown of what both candidates have to offer.
The advantage of starting Lugo: Speed. Just like Jacoby Ellsbury gives the Red Sox a running threat at the top of the order, Lugo can do so at the bottom.
The disadvantage of starting Lugo: If Lugo isn't hitting -- and he's struggled to do so for large stretches in his time in Boston -- his speed does the Red Sox no good.
The advantage of starting Lowrie: The sure-handed Lowrie won't have some of the unforced mishaps that Lugo has on defense. Also, Lowrie is a switch-hitter with a patient approach in the mold of what the Red Sox preach as an organization.
The disadvantage of starting Lowrie: One thing that might hurt Lowrie in his fight to win the job is that he might actually be a better fit off the bench. Because of his versatility, Lowrie is the perfect rover off the bench, capable of filling in at second, short and third and playing solid defense at all three positions.
The advantage of starting Lugo: This would give the shortstop a chance to regain the offensive form he showed during his years with the Rays and eventually create at least some semblance of trade value for a player who is owed $18 million over the next two years. Keep in mind that the Red Sox got Coco Crisp enough playing time last year so that he got his offensive rhythm back, enough so that he was one of the team's hottest hitters during the postseason. This enabled Boston to acquire a quality player in reliever Ramon Ramirez.
Also, the one time Lugo was put into a bench role -- the final two months of 2006 with the Dodgers -- he brooded and struggled.
The disadvantage of starting Lugo: If Lugo struggles defensively like he did a year ago -- when he made 16 errors in 292 chances -- he becomes a liability to the team. Additionally, Lugo has been very sporadic with his bat since coming to Boston.
The advantage of starting Lowrie: By giving Lowrie an everyday spot, the Red Sox will be able to better gauge if he can be their shortstop of the future, or if they need to look elsewhere. Also, because of Lowrie's strong work ethic, he figures to make improvements from the experience he gained in 2008. Though Lowrie homered just twice in 260 at-bats last year, he has the ability and development potential to offer more pop than Lugo.
The disadvantage of starting Lowrie: Lowrie tailed off with his bat late last season, hitting .213 in September and .207 in the postseason. Was that a sign that Lowrie isn't ready to play every day in the Major Leagues, or was it just a natural slump that a rookie has late in a season after pitchers make adjustments to him? If Lowrie started the year as a reserve, it would give him more time to absorb his surroundings and work on his fundamentals.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.