10Q/10D: Who will play shortstop?

February, 8, 2012
2/08/12
11:00
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(Editor's note: This is the second installment in our "10 Questions in 10 Days" series leading into Red Sox spring training, which officially kicks off Feb. 19, when pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report.)

BOSTON -- When the Red Sox picked up Marco Scutaro's option after last season, they were tacitly declaring that Cuban defector Jose Iglesias remained a work in progress, a wonderfully gifted defender who at 22 lacked sufficient at-bats in pro ball to make the leap to the big leagues.

Then they traded Scutaro to the Colorado Rockies, and all bets were off.

Even for a team that has installed a turnstile at short since trading Nomar Garciaparra in 2004, the Red Sox enter 2012 with more uncertainty at the position than any year since 2001, when spring wrist surgery sidelined Garciaparra until July.

Nick Punto, Mike Aviles & Jose Iglesias
US Presswire, Getty Images, AP PhotoTake your pick: Nick Punto, Mike Aviles or Jose Iglesias at shortstop?
The trade of Scutaro, and Jed Lowrie before him, leaves the Red Sox with what on paper appear to be unpalatable options at best, unworkable choices at worst.

Mike Aviles? After undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery in 2009, he couldn't crack the Kansas City Royals as an every-day player, was sent back to the minors as recently as last June, and was dumped by the Royals after complaining of his utility role. If the Red Sox were planning on Aviles' being their shortstop this season, they had a clever way of disguising it: They asked him to take an outfielder's glove with him to Puerto Rico and work on his outfield skills in winter ball.

Nick Punto? Last season in St. Louis, Punto was hurt on the first day of workouts and underwent surgery for a sports hernia. He wound up making two more trips to the disabled list in 2011, once with a strained flexor muscle in his forearm that affected his throws from the left side of the infield, and once with a strained oblique muscle.

Punto started six games at short for the Cardinals last season. He also is 34.

Aviles and Punto both have their upsides. Aviles responded to regular playing time with the Red Sox by swinging a productive bat, though his .317/.340/.436 batting line was the result of just 107 plate appearances. But only six of his 42 starts came at short.

Punto, when healthy, has always been an above-average defender, regarded by Ron Gardenhire, his former manager in Minnesota, as one of his favorite players because of his readiness to do whatever was asked at him, at any position. During the World Series last season, pitcher Joe Nathan, then with the Twins, said every pitcher on the staff missed him.

"As a pitcher, to have a guy behind you who can play that type of defense and take away hits and runs -- some of the plays he makes are just unbelievable," Nathan said.

The Red Sox signed Punto to a two-year, $3 million deal in December, valuing him for his glove all over the diamond, and for his reputation as the kind of clubhouse presence the team was sorely lacking. There was little reason then, or now, especially given Punto's trouble throwing last season because of a forearm strain that caused him to miss 36 games and had him contemplating surgery to repair ligament damage, that the Sox saw him as their every-day shortstop.

A week before spring training, however, the party line is that Aviles and Punto are capable replacements for Scutaro.

"What we felt is we had a couple guys in Aviles and Punto who we thought could help us get close to giving us what Marco did," Sox GM Ben Cherington said in a recent interview.

Aviles figures to get first crack at the every-day job, with Punto the most logical candidate to fill the utility role. But in the wings will be Iglesias, who burns with the desire to fulfill the promise the Red Sox saw when they gave him a four-year, $8.2 million contract as a 19-year-old.

The Red Sox may well decide that they can no longer wait for his bat to come around. The last time they won a World Series, in 2007, they did so with a so-called “offensive” shortstop, Julio Lugo, who posted a .294 on-base percentage. Bobby Valentine, when he managed the Mets, made another Cuban defector and exquisite defender, Rey Ordonez, his every-day shortstop as a rookie.

Ordonez was 25 at the time and had four seasons of pro experience, compared to two for Iglesias. But Valentine, once he lays eyes on Iglesias, may decide that time can't wait.

Coming Thursday: How strong is the Red Sox outfield?

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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