Part 6 of a 10-day series on Red Sox questions that will be answered during spring training.
BOSTON -- There is a guaranteed stumper to this question: Name the Red Sox Opening Day shortstops since 2000, a list that includes 8 names in 11 seasons, and doesn’t include Orlando Cabrera, the trading-deadline catalyst who never made it past the end of the 2004 season.
Many fans will be able to rattle off these names: Nomar Garciaparra (2000, 2002-03), Pokey Reese (2004), Edgar Renteria (2005), Alex Gonzalez (2006), Julio Lugo (2007-08), Jed Lowrie (2009), Marco Scutaro (2010).
But who started the opener at short in 2001, when Nomar was a no-go because of wrist surgery? While Lou Merloni is a good guess, you’d be wrong. Just as you would be if you mentioned Mike Lansing, though Framingham Lou and Miserable Mike both played short later that season.
Hint: He has the lowest batting average of any Sox shortstop ever with at least 40 at-bats in a season: .049, which translates to 2 hits in 41 at-bats.
Grebeck was an emergency response, of course, but ranks as the extreme example of how little stability the Red Sox have had at the position, which mostly has resisted Theo Epstein’s efforts to upgrade since becoming Red Sox GM. Nomar became disgruntled and was traded away, Pokey got hurt, Renteria forgot how to field, Gonzalez didn’t get on base enough, Lugo was an embarrassment, Lowrie hurt his wrist and Scutaro mostly survived a season in which he battled a pinched nerve in his neck and a strained rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder.
Who plays short in 2011? Scutaro has been declared the starter coming into camp by manager Terry Francona, though it’s understandable why Lowrie would like to be considered in the mix. The first-round sandwich pick (45th overall) in the 2005 draft -- the same draft that produced fellow Oregonian Jacoby Ellsbury and pitcher Clay Buchholz -- might have settled into an everyday role if he hadn’t essentially lost two seasons to the wrist and half of the 2010 season to mononucleosis.
Healthy, Lowrie put up some impressive numbers in the second half of 2010, posting a .287/.381/.526/.907 line and hitting 9 home runs in just 171 at-bats. That would seem to be a performance worthy of sparking competition in a camp noticeably absent much, but Francona made it clear that he envisions the switch-hitting Lowrie playing all four infield positions.
Lowrie "gives us something not a lot of teams can say they have, a switch-hitter that can play first, second, third or short and play a lot,’’ Francona said at the Boston baseball writers’ dinner. “He can play for a week, he can play it for a day, he can play it for two weeks. That, at some point, is probably going to save us. How many times have you seen where everybody stays healthy?"
It’s likely that the Red Sox are looking at the long view for Lowrie, whose future with the team might well depend on his versatility, with Jose Iglesias, the Cuban defector with the magic hands, perhaps a year away from claiming the shortstop position.
Lowrie said he doesn’t see himself as a “utility player,” which conjures the image of something a team pulls out of the drawer when it needs some duct tape in a pinch. But with all four Sox infielders coming off injuries -- first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (shoulder), second baseman Dustin Pedroia (foot), shortstop Scutaro and third baseman Kevin Youkilis (thumb) -- and DH David Ortiz turning 35, it’s eminently reasonable to expect that Lowrie will see considerable playing time.
In an earlier time, Minnesota jack-of-all-trades Cesar Tovar led the AL in games played and plate appearances in 1967, yet didn’t play more than 60 games at any one position, splitting time between six. The following season, Tovar played all nine positions on the field, including pitcher. Tony Phillips didn’t start more than 100 games at any position until he was 37, but played 12 seasons in which he had enough plate appearances for a batting title. Placido Polanco and Craig Counsell are more recent examples of valued players who have moved around the diamond.
A club official has said the team will not know how healthy Scutaro is until he reports to camp, but if he can hold up physically, shortstop appears to be his. But Lowrie should plan on seeing his name on Francona’s lineup card, early and often.
What do you think Lowrie’s role on the Red Sox should be? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post.
Coming Tuesday: How strong is the Red Sox bullpen?