Sox are golden with improved infield

With Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein seemingly done with his offseason shopping, barring a minor tweak or two, ESPNBoston.com's Gordon Edes is looking at the team position by position. Today, Edes breaks down the infield.

When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and 2007, they had pitching, sufficient defense, and an unmatchable middle-of-the-order power combination in David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. Will better defense and pitching, which translates to greater run prevention, at the expense of some thunder (Jason Bay) really make these Red Sox a team to compete with their championship pedigree?

"I think our teams have been different," manager Terry Francona said this week. "When I first got here, our offense at times was maybe prolific. … In '03 and '04, we had pretty intense offensive teams. We sometimes outhit our mistakes, and I don't know how comfortable we were with that. In '04, if you remember, we spun our wheels for three months, then we started catching the ball [after trades for Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz]. And '06, at the end of the year, that scared me, when we couldn't send guys out there [to pitch] who didn't have a real chance to win.

"And our offense, we're not going to go from third in the league in runs to a team that doesn't score runs. Last year we were so inconsistent, that's what hurts you."

But if Francona is happy night after night in 2010, he said, it will be for one reason: "We're catching the ball and pitching."

2009 performance: Third baseman Mike Lowell, who on his best days in the past could pick it like Mike Schmidt in his prime, last season after hip surgery had the mobility of Schmidt at his current age, which is 60. The shortstop position was in constant flux until Alex Gonzalez arrived in mid-August; from that point on, the Sox posted the best fielding percentage in the majors, .991. First base had even more turnover, with eight players starting at least one game there, and Kevin Youkilis having the most starts at 77, not even half. The only constant in the infield was Dustin Pedroia, who led major league second basemen in percentage of double plays turned in which he was the pivot man, 78.9 percent. Pedroia also was the toughest player in the majors to strike out last season, whiffing just 45 times in 714 plate appearances. Pedroia walked 74 times. Youkilis had an MVP-type season, finishing second in the league to Minnesota's Joe Mauer in OPS with a .961, leading all AL cleanup hitters in slugging percentage with a .573 SLG, and hitting .362 with runners in scoring position. Pedroia, the 2008 MVP, led the league in runs (115) for the second straight season and posted his third straight season with an OBP above .370, although his slugging percentage dropped 46 points from 2008's muscle-flexing performance. Victor Martinez saw most of his action with the Sox at first base after his trading-deadline acquisition and was an immediate offensive force (.912 OPS), but he'll be catching in 2010. And Lowell, for all his injuries, still was a productive hitter, one of six AL third basemen to have an OPS over .800 (.806) in 2009.

Departures: Shortstop Gonzalez left and became a free agent when the Sox declined his option. Shortstop Nick Green refused to be outrighted and left as a free agent. First baseman Casey Kotchman was traded to Seattle. Shortstop Chris Woodward left as a free agent.

Newcomers: Third baseman Adrian Beltre signed as a free agent. Shortstop Marco Scutaro was signed as a free agent. Infielder-outfielder Bill Hall was acquired in a trade from Seattle. Infielder Tug Hulett was acquired in a trade with Kansas City.

Upgrade over 2009? An unqualified yes: Signing a new shortstop was an obvious priority for general manager Theo Epstein, who made the addition of Scutaro his first significant move of the offseason. Scutaro, 34, dramatically improved his résumé last season, showing he could handle playing shortstop on an every-day basis while putting up the best offensive numbers of his career (.379 OBP, 42 points higher than his career average, and .409 SLG, 25 points over his career mark). Even though some slippage can be expected, the Sox preferred Scutaro to the black hole offensively they would have gotten from Gonzalez. And although Scutaro's defense as measured by his ultimate zone rating per 150 games is just a tick above average (1.0) and can't match Gonzalez's, it's good enough. Beltre, meanwhile, is by consensus a magician at third, but the Mariners weren't counting on his bat disappearing in his five years in Seattle. Beltre took a one-year deal with the Red Sox to re-establish his market value, so he has all the incentive in the world to prove his drop in production was strictly a byproduct of playing at Safeco Field. It's not unreasonable to expect 25 to 30 home runs. Youkilis will still slide over to play third on occasion, with Martinez serving as backup first baseman. The Red Sox now have Gold Glovers at first, second and third, and Hall, a pickup from Seattle, gives the Sox a versatile utility player who was once an every-day shortstop.

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.