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ON BASEBALL

Red Sox face big questions at shortstop

Xander Bogaerts (left) and Will Middlebrooks are almost certain to be potent hitters; their defense, however, is more questionable.. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Xander Bogaerts (left) and Will Middlebrooks are almost certain to be potent hitters; their defense, however, is more questionable.

JUPITER, Fla. — As underwhelmed as Xander Bogaerts left you after his defensive performance in Wednesday’s 8-6 loss to the Cardinals, Deven Marrero left you overwhelmed after his leather display against the Marlins in Thursday’s rain-shortened 0-0 game.

“My gosh, he put on a display defensively and had some good at-bats,” said a very pleased manager John Farrell. “His range up the middle was outstanding. The double play he was able to turn was about as acrobatic as anything we’ve seen. I thought overall we put together a solid effort defensively.”

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This is going to get tricky for the Red Sox.

Marrero should be the future shortstop based on his glove work, and Xander Bogaerts may be best suited for third base, especially with Will Middlebrooks struggling in the field as he did on Wednesday when he committed an error and muffed another ball.

Wednesday and Thursday might have been isolated spring training games, but they also were quite telling.

The difference between Stephen Drew and Bogaerts at shortstop is vast, and that was not lost on a few people in the Red Sox organization, one of whom said, “All of a sudden some of those outs we used to get are base hits.”

When Drew was on the field, any ball hit in his general area was going to be an out. He was so smooth as a fielder. His positioning was tremendous. His throws were so accurate.

On Wednesday, a couple of balls got through the 5-6 hole, and it became obvious that between Middlebrooks’s struggles at third and Bogaerts’s inexperience and lack of range, the Boston infield is going to have some gaps and gaffes.

Bogaerts, said a veteran scout, “may not be as good as Drew defensively but he’s going to be a superstar. So you give up a little to gain a lot.

“In time, he’s probably going to get better. I’m sure the Red Sox are wondering still if he’s a shortstop or third baseman, but what we know is, this young man is going to be an offensive force.”

It’s true; initially you’re going to see the difference in the field, but there’s no doubt Bogaerts has a quick bat and a great eye at the plate and is going to be an offensive force.

There was even a stark contrast between Jose Iglesias and Drew. But we came to find out that the pitchers and coaches loved Drew even more than Iglesias because when Drew was at shortstop, they knew the play would be made, whereas with Iglesias, there was always that flashy aspect that sometimes would result in an error.

This season, the pitchers may be a little more uptight. They’ll have to pay more attention to hitting their spots, because some balls will be getting through the hole. Innings may be extended. Pitch counts may be elevated.

Much of Boston’s world championship in 2013 was based on pitching and defense. The Red Sox rarely shot themselves in the foot. They caught the ball very well and spared the pitcher from having to throw a lot of extra pitches.

Drew is still out there as a free agent, having turned down a $14.1 million qualifying offer from the Red Sox. You can argue the merits of his decision, and in hindsight, he probably should have accepted the offer.

At the time, Drew and agent Scott Boras were probably thinking they could get a multiyear deal, and why not? Drew is an excellent player both defensively and offensively (his poor postseason at the plate notwithstanding), and he got better when he got new contact lenses.

He is currently working out at the Boras Spring Training Institute in Miami, and it doesn’t appear that he would be behind if a team signed him in the next week. He could be repackaged as a second baseman if that’s what it takes to get a contract, but let’s face it, he’s a shortstop who should have a job right now. The fact that he doesn’t makes no sense.

The Red Sox didn’t want to give Drew a multiyear deal, feeling they have Bogaerts on the roster and Marrero in the wings. It was very much like the Jarrod Saltalamacchia situation, where the Sox offered only a two-year deal because of their hopes for Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart.

In the long term, Marrero may be the shortstop because of his excellent glove, range, and throwing ability and what the team feels is .260-.270 potential at the plate.

Marrero was already showing those fluid, graceful movements Thursday when he ranged far behind the bag on an outstanding play.

“My thing is defense,” said Marrero, who is also an excellent base stealer. “I give it all I have on every single play. When my time comes, I’ll be ready.”

So what do the Red Sox do?

Do they go through growing pains with a young left side and take their lumps or do they sign Drew for a year and move Bogaerts to third?

Middlebrooks has to play to accentuate his value. There aren’t many righthanded power-hitting third basemen in baseball right now. He’s a valuable commodity.

Infield coach Brian Butterfield worked Middlebrooks hard back in Fort Myers Thursday, hoping to straighten out his footwork and his anticipation.

Farrell addressed both Bogaerts and Middlebrooks.

“The work [Bogaerts] has done with Butter has made his first-step quickness better and has helped his efficiency to maintain good range,” Farrell said. “Will, to me, is a hell of an athlete and a guy with two years of mixed results. Burst on the scene with a big year in his rookie year. He was challenged last season with injury. But we felt he’s going to be an everyday third baseman and he’s our guy.”

Bogaerts is not horrible at shortstop. He’ll handle the position, make the routine play. But the Red Sox have to hope he turns into a plus defender and that Middlebrooks can handle his position.

Are the Red Sox willing to sacrifice some defense for what they perceive to be two good hitters in Bogaerts and Middlebrooks?

If so, they’d be altering the recipe. The championship blend didn’t include average-to-below-average defense.

Which is why there’s still a lot of merit to bringing back Drew: stabilize the defense until Marrero is ready in 2015, and let Bogaerts play his inevitable position while getting Middlebrooks at-bats at the corners.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.
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