Missing Nomar: The Red Sox Shortstop Search Continues

Fourteen players have started at shortstop since the beginning of the 2004 season: Nomar Garciaparra, Pokey Reese, Cesar Crespo, Ricky Gutierrez, Mark Bellhorn, Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Royce Clayton, Alex Cora, Alex Gonzalez, Julio Lugo, Dustin Pedroia, Jed Lowrie and Nick Green. Only Gonzalez, Cora, Lugo and Renteria made more than 100 starts at the position in a Red Sox uniform.Derek Jeter started 907 of 972 games for the New York Yankees over this time period.

In his six years before the trade, Nomar started 871 of 972 games with the Red Sox. See the problem here?

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Red Sox three most prominent shortstop acquisitions over the last six seasons were hailed with great expectations: Orlando Cabrera, the Expos player Theo had been coveting; Edgar Renteria, the apparent best free agent shortstop in 2004; and Julio Lugo, the Tampa Bay Devil Ray who fell apart with the Dodgers.

  Total With Boston Home Away
Orlando Cabrera .294/.320/.465/.785 .266/.298/.376/.674 .319/.341/.546/.887
Edgar Renteria .276/.327/.385/.721 .266/.325/.382/.707 .285/.345/.389/.733
Julio Lugo .251/.319/.346/.664 .286/.350/.395/.745 .190/.241/.306/.547

During his time with the Red Sox, Cabrera was a machine away from Fenway Park. He hit that amazing ball off the top of the scoreboard and played the best defense the Red Sox had seen in years, but didn’t have what the Red Sox were looking for as (at that time) the bridge to Hanley Ramirez.

Looking back at the numbers, it is almost puzzling how quickly “Rent-a-Wreck” was moved out of town. However, Edgar did have his problems defensively and was promptly moved back to the National League.  For all the grief he received, Renteria could have played much worse before he deserved all of it.

Julio Lugo’s home and away splits above are from the 2007 season, his only full season as the starting shortstop. In 2008, his splits are similar to 2007 but in 2009, in limited at bats with the Red Sox, the numbers were reversed; struggling at home (.205/.225/.2359/.584) while thriving on the road (.329/.415/.371/.786). Overall, being acquired as an offense-first shortstop who had twice clubbed 15 home runs and had not posted an on-base percentage lower than .322 or slugging less than .372 in any full season, Lugo was a bust.

Bargain Basement Find

When the Red Sox signed Alex Gonzalez in 2006, both the team and the player were desperate. In a fantastic deal for the Sox, Gonzalez dazzled Red Sox Nation with his defense. And more amazingly, he didn’t stack up that poorly to the high-profile guys. While 2009 was certainly a limited sample size, just 44 games, the Red Sox seem to have found another player who can succeed in Fenway Park, under the Boston media microscope, or some combination of the two.

  Total With Boston Home Away
Alex Gonzalez ‘06 .255/.299/.2397/.695 .279/.306/.419/.725 .234/.293/.378/.671
Alex Gonzalez ‘09 .284/.316/.453/.769 .306/.316/.453/.769 .263/.282/.342/.624

The Once King

The elephant in the room in any shortstop conversation is Hanley Ramirez.  His emergence as one of the game’s best players hasn’t quite taken people by surprise, but he certainly deserved the considerable hype surrounding him in the minors. Since arriving in Florida on the other end of the Josh Beckett/Mike Lowell trade, Ramirez has been nothing but terrific:

2006 .292/.353/.480/.833
2007 .332/.386/.562/.948
2008 .301/.400/.540/.940
2009 .342/.410/.543/.954

Costello: I said I don’t give a darn! Abbott: Oh, that’s our shortstop.

Without an everyday shortstop on the roster, Theo once again will need to be creative to fill out the roster. Jed Lowrie is the guy the front office would like to see there, but injury troubles have made him a question mark. The $6 million option on Alex Gonzalez was declined, though they could bring him back on a smaller deal as a free agent. A “Hanley Returns” blockbuster trade is unlikely; even if the Marlins wanted to trade him, as the cost in prospects would be monumental and probably higher than the Red Sox would consider.

Top prospect Casey Kelly, who spent half of 2009 at short and half as a pitcher, is likely going to work on the latter full time. That leaves Jose Iglesias as the heir apparent at SS. In very limited time in the Arizona Fall League, he has ten hits in 45 at bats over 12 games. Only 19, Iglesias is more upside than anything at this point, though soxprospects describes him as having “the makings of a gold glove shortstop” with “average to above average speed” similar to Orlando Cabrera.

Red Sox Decline Option on Alex Gonzalex

On Sunday, the Red Sox declined the $6 million option they held on Alex Gonzalez for the 2010 season.  By declining his option the Red Sox find themselves without an everyday shortstop on the roster.  Is this the end of Gonzalez’s second stint with the Red Sox or is free agency a more favorable route to bring about his return?

By the Numbers

Known more for his gold glove caliber defense than for his offensive prowess, Gonzalez put up a .284/.316/.453 line in 44 games with the Red Sox, good for the second highest OPS of his career (.769), though in a very small sample.

By comparison, in his 2006 season with the Red Sox Gonzalez hit .255/.299/.397. As a career .247 hitter with a .689 OPS, Gonzalez provided more than the Red Sox could have imagined this season at a position where they needed offensive and defensive help. This is an offensive performance Gonzalez would be hard pressed to repeat. With question marks remaining at catcher and left field as well and Julio Lugo’s salary still on the books for next year, declining the option was the right move at that price.

Wrist-ful Thinking About Lowrie?

Jed Lowrie’s career path has been significantly altered by his wrist injury.  A simple offseason recovery turned into surgery costing him almost the entire 2009 season. With concerns about Lowrie’s health, it makes perfect sense to bring Gonzalez back on a short deal.

The Red Sox signed Gonzalez to a one-year $3 million contract before the 2006 season, a season he parleyed into his three-year contract with the Reds. Only 32, Gonzalez could sign another discounted contract with the Red Sox and rebuild his value again after injuries derailed his 2008 season and limited him at the start of 2009. He would be the starter unless Lowrie outplays him. Even then, Gonzalez would likely become a utility player in the mold of Crisp and Lugo, only playing his natural position while his platoon partner (Lowrie) moves around the diamond to fill in for someone else.

Who Else Is Out There?

Marco Scutaro is the premier free agent shortstop this year, but a 34 year-old coming off a career year is unlikely to be a good investment. Miguel Tejada could provide some pop with the bat, but not the defense the Red Sox like at shortstop. Orlando Cabrera is also available, but the front office let that ship sail after 2004 and hasn’t shown any interest in him the last two years.