Red Sox manager Terry Francona dropped hints to that effect before Thursday’s 4-2, 11-inning win over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, a game in which Lowrie singled and scored and drove in the game’s final run with a sacrifice fly after fouling off four two-strike pitches.
“As an organization, I think we think a lot of this kid,’’ Francona said. “We’d be crazy not to. But to just say he’s going to be the shortstop coming into camp, with all he’s been through, I don’t know if that would have made a whole lot of sense. He had the wrist injury, the mono. And maybe all along I think this spring Jed thought he had a lot to prove.’’
Lowrie is batting .432, the highest average in the American League for any player with more than 40 at-bats and second in the majors only to Matt Holliday of the Cardinals (.455). Small sample size? Since last July 21, when he came off the disabled list following an extended bout of mononucleosis that began in the spring, Lowrie has posted a .316/.393/.558/.951 batting line. Among big-league middle infielders with at least 200 plate appearances in that span, only Troy Tulowitzki of the Rockies has a higher on-base average and slugging percentage.
Tulowitzki this past winter was so valued by the Rockies that he signed a 10-year, $157.75 million contract extension, even though he still had three years left on his contract.
"I think our evaluation of him for a long time was this kid controls the strike zone, he can hit the ball, not just for singles, he can get on base, he can hit the ball in the gap and now that he’s getting stronger, he's hitting the ball out of the ballpark,'' Francona said of Lowrie, who has 3 home runs and a dozen RBIs. "But we hadn’t seem him play for a long while.''
Francona also left little doubt that the team believes Lowrie can handle the position defensively.
"Jed's not blessed with ton of foot speed,'' the manager said, "but I think one thing as guys in uniform we need to be careful about is if you don't see the highlight reel play, that doesn’t mean the guy can't play a position. If they make the plays, that’s enough.''
Lowrie has started each of the last six games, including five at shortstop. Thursday night, he moved to third base in the second inning after Kevin Youkilis fouled a pitch off his left shin in a first-inning at-bat. X-rays on Youkilis were negative, but if Youkilis needs a day or two, Lowrie would remain at third and Scutaro would play short.
Lowrie, who just turned 27 last Sunday, is eight years younger than the 35-year-old Scutaro. He maintained this spring that he considered himself a shortstop and an everyday player, and wondered how much playing time he might get this season.
"Truthfully, I know if I just continue to prepare and do what I’m doing, I’ll be all right,’" Lowrie said the other day when asked if he was trying to make the shortstop decision hard for the Red Sox. “That’s not what’s motivating me. I’m motivated to go out there and help this team win and continue to be the good baseball player that I know I am.’’
Before the start of spring training, Francona had stated unequivocally that Scutaro was the team’s everyday shortstop, and stressed Lowrie’s versatility as a switch-hitter who can play all four infield positions. But until the last two seasons, when Scutaro was Toronto’s everyday shortstop in 2009 and served in the same role for the Red Sox in 2010, he was a utiilityman who played second, short and third and even spent a little time in the outfield.
So switching their roles would not leave the team deficient. Scutaro, who played with a pinched nerve in his neck and a strained rotator cuff in his right shoulder last season and earned Francona’s respect for grinding through the injuries, is off to a slow start this season, batting just .195 (8 for 46).
Scutaro is in the last year of a two-year, $12.5 million deal. The club holds an option on 2012 for $6 million, and if they decline to exercise it, Scutaro could trigger a player option for $3 million to return. The Sox also could buy him out for $1.5 million.