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Two Short

Good CrewThe Red Sox are toying with putting Dustin Pedroia at shortstop. As an avowed Red Sox fan, I welcome this short-term solution.

Boston signed Julio Iglesias, the 19-year-old Cuban defector, for a high sum this year as their shortstop of the future. This refrain is no doubt familiar to many Red Sox fans. In July 2004, GM Theo Epstein traded fan favorite, batting champ and seeming future Hall of Famer Nomar Garciaparra for Montreal’s Orlando Cabrera. Boston won it all that October, but when Cabrera left unceremoniously in the offseason, there began a long-term void at the position. Florida’s Hanley Ramirez was a couple years in the Red Sox pipeline, jumping two levels over the season, but at the time was less heralded for his numbers than his talent and potential — plenty of high potential prospects have come up short over the years — and the stud was summarily traded, in Epstein’s absence, for Josh Beckett. Since then, the Red Sox have tried several shortstops to varying degrees of failure. Edgar Renteria, who might have had the best non A-Rod/Jeter bat at the position before coming to Boston, was unproductive in 2005 (he would be better in the NL the next year). In 2006, Alex Gonzalez fielded well but didn’t hit. Julio Lugo looked OK at times in 2007, but aside from decent on-base numbers, he didn’t produce to his millstone contract, and was lead-footed, to boot. Last year, there was Jed Lowrie, who was, depending on the columnist, either too young, too injured or a tweener. Lowrie was unproductive enough for Boston towards the end of 2008 that the club trotted out the pu-pu platter in 2009, and things came full circle when Gonzalez returned at the trade deadline after. He was not re-signed, and Boston, which put up its best run in decades as a franchise without a quality shortstop, is now immediately in need.

Before the talk started, there were rumblings, and indeed, attempts, to move Pedroia to short for the last few years. Half his minor league games were played at short. He took reps at short all season, and spent 2006 spring training at the position, but until now the most likely candidate was considered to be outside the organization. The 2009 free-agent shortstop class has only one big name,1 Marco Scutaro, who is 32 (which is old) and is coming off a career year after a half decade of utility work. Thanks to his great year, he ranks as a Type-A free agent, and his signing would cost a team draft picks. (Insiders explained the Red Sox’s signing of Mets All-Star closer Billy Wagner in terms of draft picks, and the club is said to be letting slugger Jason Bay go for the same reasons. It’s safe to assume that the picks Scutaro costs are a price Boston might not pay.)

If Pedroia is moved to short, though, Boston will have an infinitely easier time filling his open second base spot with a productive player. The Red Sox can go in several different directions looking for a second baseman. Cincinnati cleanup hitter Brandon Phillips, once the prize of the Expos system, is said to be on the block. Though he likely can’t be bought for cheap, the Boston farm system must have something to satisfy Cincinnati, whose Scott Rolen trade in 2008 was one of the more confusing of the year. Orlando Hudson, who’s got a decent glove and better bat, can be bought on the cheap as he was in 2008— cheaper still since he sat all September for the Dodgers. Hudson likely won’t match his career-high production from last season, seeing as he’d be going from the worst division in baseball (NL West) to the best, but he has a better-than-good shot to match Lowrie and Nick Green’s combined 2009 production.2 Another approach would be going after the Marlins’ Dan Uggla. The big-bat, small-field shortstop can be hidden between Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis (or better yet, Casey Kotchman), but if he comes as advertised and the defense suffers, would it be worse than a Julio Lugo infield? Nothing is as bad as a bad shortstop, and there were few infields worse than the one Boston trotted out in 2009.

There are costs, of course. Pedroia might be the best second baseman in the league, and moving him to a more demanding position could render him ineffective with the glove and shaky with the bat. (At least according to conventional wisdom.) Plenty of defensive metrics rated Pedroia’s glovework near the top, so any incoming second baseman would have his work cut out for him. Even with an above-average second baseman, the Red Sox might still beporous on the right side of the infield. Pedroia’s bat would play even better as shortstop — goes without saying — but all things being equal, we can project his defense to suffer at least a bit.

But, then again, it’s not all about numbers. Not to be a homer, but Pedroia is a pretty special player. I’m of the opinion that if he puts in the time to do it, he can do it, or at least can do it decent. There’s no reason to believe — at least from my uneducated position — he’ll be less mobile at short than Lugo, or so overwhelmed that his production falls to Green levels. Rookie of the Year and MVP in consecutive seasons, a successful switch to the hardest position in the infield would put Pedroia in even more rarefied strata, or at least give him another thing in common with Youkilis. The formidable Red Sox front office is pretty good with in-house matters, and the easier-to-acquire extra bat might be just what Boston needs to keep rolling until the new guard arrives in 2011 or ’12.

    Footnotes

  1. Aside from Cabrera, who is all but promised not to return.
  2. A left-handed compliment if there ever was one.