FORT MYERS, Fla. — It is hard to figure why the position of shortstop has been such a revolving door for the Red Sox.
Since July 31, 2004, when Nomar Garciaparra was traded to the Cubs in a four-team deal, the Sox have had 24 different players start at least one game at short.
“I can’t point to one particular reason for it,” said general manager Ben Cherington, who has served the organization in many roles, including farm director, assistant general manager, and international scout.
“We continue to believe we are closer to stability than we have been in the past, but of course the proof will be in the pudding.”
Cherington is right about this, though: “Despite the turnover, the team has been pretty successful during the time since the Nomar trade. Perhaps we are testing the theory that you need stability at that position.”
The Sox have won three championships since the Garciaparra deal.
If Xander Bogaerts starts on Opening Day, he will be the Sox’ ninth Opening Day starter at shortstop since 2004. Only Julio Lugo and Marco Scutaro have held the Opening Day assignment at short for consecutive seasons.
Since 2004, the Sox haven’t had a shortstop make the All-Star team. Orlando Cabrera, who came from the Expos in the Garciaparra deal in 2004, Lugo in 2007, and Stephen Drew in 2013 were the main starters at short when the Sox won the World Series.
Cabrera left the team as a free agent after the ’04 season when the sides couldn’t work out a contract, and there seemed to be some personal issue between Cabrera and then-general manager Theo Epstein.
The Sox replaced the slick-fielding Cabrera with an established All-Star, Edgar Renteria, who was one of the best all-around shortstops in the game after a successful stint with the Cardinals. But he was one of those free agents who just didn’t fit.
Whether it was the big-city atmosphere of Boston or something else, Renteria’s one year with the Sox was a nightmare at the plate and in the field after the team signed him to a four-year, $40 million deal before the ’05 season.
Renteria had 30 errors in 2005 after winning Gold Gloves in 2002 and 2003. He got off to a poor start in April and finished the season with a .276 average, with eight homers and 70 RBIs. The Sox had projected Renteria as a .310-.330 hitter with 100-RBI potential.
He was traded to the Braves, with the Red Sox having to eat a portion of his contract.
“We were surprised,” Cherington said. “He was a proven guy with a good reputation as a teammate and he was always well-prepared. Those are attributes which usually play well in Boston, but he just never seemed comfortable.”
Lugo’s career slid quite a bit after the 2008 season in Boston and he was traded to St. Louis July 22, 2009.
Drew became a free agent after last season and has not yet signed with another team.
While shortstop is an important position, with the best athletes playing there or pitching, the emphasis hasn’t quite been on that position for the Sox.
We associate great impact fielders with shortstop — magicians such as Ozzie Smith, Omar Vizquel, Mark Belanger, and others who saved runs and made their pitchers’ jobs that much easier.
There hasn’t been a lot of excitement about Red Sox shortstops since the home-grown Garciaparra, who won back-to-back batting titles in 1999 (.357) and 2000 (.372).
Bogaerts has started to create a similar excitement some 18 years after Garciaparra made his debut in 1996. Could Bogaerts be the long-term shortstop?
Even that is in question because Bogaerts keeps growing and eventually the feeling among scouts is that he’ll outgrow the position and move to third base.
If not Bogaerts, then who? Could it be another No. 1 pick, Deven Marrero, considered a slick fielder and decent hitter who could be ready in another year?
An interesting aspect of this situation is the effect on three-time Gold Glove second baseman, 2008 American League MVP, and 2007 Rookie of the Year Dustin Pedroia (he’s also one of the 24 players who have started at short since the Garciaparra trade).
It’s amazing that Pedroia’s play has not been affected when one considers that up-the-middle infielders have to work so closely together on double plays, cover plays, and cutoffs.
Since Pedroia became the full-time second baseman in 2007, 17 shortstops have made starts for the Sox.
Pedroia has worked with Alex Cora, Alex Gonzalez, Lugo, Royce Clayton, Jed Lowrie, Nick Green, Marco Scutaro, Billy Hall, Yamaico Navarro, Angel Sanchez, Mike Aviles, Drew Sutton, Jose Iglesias, Nick Punto, Pedro Ciriaco, Drew, and Bogaerts.
Some of those were cameos. Pedroia has yet to spend significant time with Bogaerts, but the likelihood is that he will be Pedroia’s double-play partner this season, barring the last-minute signing of Drew.
“I’ve been lucky in that they’ve all been very good and after a few reps together I’ve been good with all of them,” Pedroia said. “They’re all a little different. They all do things a little differently, but the main thing is that I’ve been able to work with all of them without much of a problem.”
Pedroia refused to name a favorite and he also downplayed how difficult the situation has been. He seemed to have an outstanding working relationship with Drew.
“Stephen’s throws were really accurate,” Pedroia said. “He was outstanding that way. I enjoyed playing with Stephen. I thought he was an outstanding defensive shortstop.”
Veteran scout and now special assistant with the Red Sox Gary Hughes said of Pedroia, “I’m sure if there was another second baseman out there given all the shortstops that have come and gone, it would have been very difficult for that guy. But because it’s Pedroia, because he’s so special, it’s made the situation not as difficult as you might think. That’s a tribute to Pedroia.”
Iglesias and Gonzalez were the shortstops with the most range. Iglesias was off the charts in that way. Gonzalez had quick hands. Pedroia had to be even quicker when they were on the field.
Scutaro, Lugo, and Aviles were steady. Pedroia spent the most time with Scutaro and Lugo, two seasons with each. Lugo started 235 games, the most of any recent Sox shortstop, and Scutaro was second at 234.
Scutaro was really a second baseman playing shortstop, as was Lowrie, who is currently the A’s starting shortstop. Aviles didn’t have great range but was a very accurate thrower.
There are timing and range issues with each shortstop for Pedroia. He has had to cover more ground at times and less at others. The timing on taking the throw and making the pivot on the double play is certainly affected by who is at shortstop.
The speed of the throw — hard, soft, in between — is a major factor and takes getting used to with each shortstop.
Pedroia downplays all of it, believing it’s his job to adapt to whoever is playing shortstop. He has.
He made six starts with Bogaerts last season, so he has a general idea of what to expect from the rookie, who may also be a little quicker because of the footwork drills he’s been doing with third base coach Brian Butterfield in spring training.
“I think it’s probably easier for Dustin because he makes every one of those guys better,” Butterfield said. “The big thing is getting to know the arm angles of the shortstops and where the ball is coming from. He’s one of the premier pivot men in the game, so the throw to him is very important, and that’s what he has to get used to.”
Everyone would love the Sox to settle on one guy at short for a long time. That could be Bogaerts, but who can tell?