The Red Sox traded Nomar Garciaparra on July 31, 2004, sending the disgruntled five-time All-Star to the Chicago Cubs. It proved to be an inspired move as the Red Sox went on to win their first World Series since 1918.
But in the 7 1/2 seasons since then, finding a shortstop has been astonishingly problematic for an organization that excels in other aspects of building a competitive team.
The Red Sox have started 18 players at shortstop since Garciaparra was traded. None has started 70 percent of the games at the position for two years in a row.
‘’I’ve kind of gotten used to it,’’ said second baseman Dustin Pedroia. ‘’We go through a lot of shortstops around here.’’
More than $110 million has been invested in trying to find a long-term solution. Former general manager Theo Epstein signed Edgar Renteria to a four-year, $40 million deal, then watched him last one season. Another expensive free agent, Julio Lugo, proved a waste of $36 million.
Marco Scutaro appeared to be an acceptable solution, playing adequately for two seasons. But after picking up his $6 million option in October, the Red Sox traded him to Colorado in January to dump his salary.
And once again, the search is on for a shortstop. The difference now could be the presence of Bobby Valentine as manager.
Valentine is enamored with the talents of 22-year-old Jose Iglesias, who was signed for $6 million in 2009 after he defected from Cuba. Iglesias has remarkable defensive skills and would instantly make the left side of the infield better. But he has been a weak hitter through two seasons in the minors and was optioned to Triple A Pawtucket March 27.
It was a decision Valentine and general manager Ben Cherington were in concert on. Iglesias was 5 for 25 in spring training, with two hits in his final 15 at-bats.
‘’Just because God delays does not mean God denies,’’ Valentine said. ‘’He will not be denied. That’s what I told him and that’s what Ben believes. Ben told him, ‘It’s not if, it’s when.’’’
For now, the job belongs to Mike Aviles, a 31-year-old career utility player obtained from the Royals at the trade deadline last season. He is a dangerous hitter but only an adequate fielder.
‘’It’s a good situation,’’ said Valentine. ‘’I don’t see it as a problem. I see it as we have a wealth of talent.
‘’They’ve all played very well in the spring. Everything you want them to do. Iglesias has made improvements with his bat and Aviles has made improvements in the field.’’
Aviles worked out with Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and Adrian Gonzalez throughout spring training and played more than twice as many innings in games as Iglesias.
‘’He has been terrific,’’ Valentine said. ‘’I’m very comfortable with him.’’
Aviles played only 91 innings at shortstop last season and hasn’t played the position regularly since 2008, his rookie year with the Royals.
‘’I consider myself a shortstop, it’s my natural position,’’ Aviles said. ‘’But it has been good getting the reps in spring training and getting settled in there again. They’ve given me a lot of work and that’s what I wanted.’’
Aviles knows that Iglesias is the shortstop of the future.
‘’He’s got special ability in the field,’’ said Aviles. ‘’You don’t see those kind of hands very often.
‘’I talk to him all the time and try to help him. He’s got a chance to be great once he puts it all together.’’
Iglesias, who now lives in Miami, worked out with Yankees star Alex Rodriguez after the 2010 season and copied his long swing. That contributed to his hitting .235 and striking out 58 times in 357 at-bats for Pawtucket last season.
Iglesias has shown a better approach at the plate this spring, getting more compact with his swing and making better contact. The statistical results were not impressive, but there was progress in terms of his fundamentals.
‘’I’m more consistent now with what I do and I have a good routine,’’ said Iglesias, who had a .624 OPS in his first two seasons in the minors. ‘’This spring has been very good for me.’’
Iglesias represents the Sox’ best hope to finally find a long-term solution at shortstop.
The draft has been a junkyard for the Sox when it comes to shortstops. Since 2005, they have drafted only five shortstops in the first 10 rounds. None are among their top prospects as this season starts.
Kris Negron, a seventh-round pick in 2006, never got above Single A outside of four games for Double A Portland in 2008. He was traded to the Reds in 2009 for Alex Gonzalez because — no surprise — the Red Sox were desperate for a shortstop.
Ryan Dent was a supplemental first-round pick in 2007 and signed for $571,000. He is a career .221 hitter over five seasons.
Casey Kelly, a first-round pick in 2008, spent parts of two years as a part-time shortstop before the Sox made him a pitcher, their hope all along. He was traded to the Padres in 2010 in the Gonzalez deal.
Derrik Gibson, a third second-round pick in 2008, was signed for $600,000. He has hit .235 with a paltry .624 OPS in two full seasons of Single A ball.
Mookie Betts, a fifth-round choice last season, has played only one game since signing.
There is hope for two other international players. Xander Bogaerts, 19, has the kind of athleticism that reminds observers of Hanley Ramirez. He was challenged with an assignment to Single A Greenville last season and had an .834 OPS. If Iglesias becomes established at shortstop, Bogaerts could shift to third base or the outfield.
The Sox also have 18-year-old Jose Vinicio, who was signed for $1.95 million when he turned 16. He has spent the last two seasons in the Gulf Coast League. At only 150 pounds, he must mature physically to advance deeper into the system.
Bogaerts and Vinicio are years away. Iglesias may be only a few months. After years of a revolving door, Aviles will plug the Garciaparra-sized gap until Iglesias is deemed ready. Perhaps then the Red Sox will finally have found their solution.