SweetSpot: Alex Cora
Posted by Rich Lederer
Red Sox Nation has a lot to be proud of as Boston heads to New York for a four-game series between the two winningest teams in the majors this decade.
First and foremost, the Red Sox are the only organization that has won two World Series championships during the 21st century. While the Yankees claimed four of five World Series titles from 1996-2000, that is so yesterday.
Speaking of the here and now, Boston is 8-0 against its rivals this season. Sure, the Yankees lead the Red Sox by 1.5 games in the American League East, but the typical New England fan intent on bragging rights is more interested in head-to-head competition and counting championships, albeit only those since jumping on the bandwagon and wearing green and pink Red Sox hats.
What is in fashion is Theo Epstein and his front-office team. Since Epstein took over as general manager prior to the 2003 season, Boston has won at least 95 games each year except 2006, when the club was victorious 86 times and missed the postseason for the only time in six years. The Red Sox have been a model franchise in terms of scouting, drafting, signing and developing players during Epstein's tenure.
Nonetheless, there is one position that has haunted Boston since the club won its first World Series title in 86 years: shortstop. You know, the one that Nomar Garciaparra used to hold down.
To be fair, Orlando Cabrera earned his World Series ring in 2004 when he hit .294/.320/.465 after being acquired from the Montreal Expos in a four-team deal at the trade deadline and .288/.368/.356 during the postseason. Cabrera, however, became a free agent and signed a four-year, $32 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels. The Red Sox then inked Edgar Renteria to a four-year, $40 million contract.
While Cabrera was the best-fielding shortstop in the majors in 2005, Renteria ranked 17 out of 25 qualified shortstops with an Ultimate Zone Rating that was 24 runs worse than his counterpart in L.A. Moreover, Renteria, who never seemed comfortable in Boston, didn't earn his salary and was promptly traded to the Atlanta Braves for Andy Marte (with the Red Sox responsible for paying $11 million of his remaining contract).
A month earlier, the Red Sox traded Hanley Ramirez, who was four weeks shy of his 22nd birthday, to the Florida Marlins (along with Anibal Sanchez and two other minor leaguers) for Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, and Guillermo Mota.
With Alex Cora now the only option at shortstop, Boston signed free agent Alex Gonzalez to a one-year deal for $2,682,592 just prior to the start of spring training. Although Gonzalez didn't hit much (.255/.299/.397), he was spectacular in the field in his lone season with the Red Sox and more than earned his keep. But Ramirez was named National League Rookie of the Year for hitting .292 with 46 doubles, 11 triples and 17 home runs while stealing 51 bases in 66 attempts and scoring 119 runs.
Boston once again turned to the free-agent market to sign its next shortstop, Julio Lugo, in December 2006 for 4 years and $36 million. Thanks in large part to Beckett and Lowell (and with little or no help from Lugo who "hit" .237/.294/.349), the Red Sox won the World Series in 2007. Lugo went from bad to worse over the next year and a half as his power and defense failed him. Boston finally dumped him two weeks ago but had to eat the remaining $13.5 million on his contract.
The Red Sox have now gone to Jed Lowrie, a former first-round pick (45th overall) in the 2005 amateur draft. The 25-year-old underwent wrist surgery in April and has only appeared in 17 games, going 7-for-50 (.140/.211/.240).
Nick Green, 30, has actually garnered most of the playing time at shortstop this season, but has struggled as much as his predecessors, hitting .238/.304/.374 in 261 plate appearances.
In the meantime, Ramirez is leading the NL in average (.340) while ranking sixth in OBP (.409) and eighth in slugging (.554). Did I mention that he played shortstop, too?
Call it misfortune, bad timing or poor player evaluation, but Boston's "luck" with shortstops over the past five years is a reminder that you can't win 'em all -- unless, of course, you're playing the Yankees.
Rich Lederer is the co-founder of Baseball Analysts.