While watching the Braves attempt to keep their season alive against the Giants on Monday, there was a play that involved two former Red Sox shortstops–Alex Gonzalez and Edgar Renteria. Renteria, in the form anyone who watched the 2005 team remembers, did not field a ball cleanly, but was able to get the runner (Gonzalez) out because he failed to run hard down the line. Just a few days prior, Dusty Baker was penciling Orlando Cabrera, another former Sox shortstop, into the #2 spot in the Reds’ lineup despite owning the on-base percentage equivalent of the Mendoza line. Nomar Garciaparra, who needs no introduction, is still in our lives as an analyst at ESPN. As for Julio Lugo, well, he’s at home watching the playoffs, because he played for the Orioles.
It is–and should be–shocking that three of the eight playoff teams this year have former Red Sox shortstops in their employ, because, with the exception of early-decade Nomar, they were all terrible. Orlando Cabrera has been the most productive of the bunch since leaving, but that was six years ago, and he has not been much better than replacement level the past two seasons. Edgar Renteria was dealt one year into his long-term deal with the Red Sox thanks to showing up to spring training looking like a doughy baked good and wielding a bat and glove about as well as you can imagine one to as well. Julio Lugo was meant to plug the hole at shortstop, but thanks to a broken finger he sustained the summer before coming to town, had his offense derailed and his defensive ability, which had been a plus for him in the past, seemed a distant dream the further into his contract he went. Boston seems to have a serious love affair with Alex Gonzalez, but it is not requited love, as his on-base percentage and lack of power production was not enough to make him a viable, useful option at the position despite his glove work.
According to Baseball Prospectus, Red Sox starting shortstops combined for 25.4 Wins Above Replacement from 2000-2009. Nomar was responsible for 21.7 of that WARP on his own, despite missing all but 21 games in 2001 and being dealt at the deadline in 2004. Cabrera (0.8), Renteria (1.8), Gonzalez (0.7) and, the worst offender, Lugo (0.4 over parts of three seasons) made up the rest of that. Think about that for a moment–the most productive campaign Boston has had from a shortstop since 2004 was thanks to Edgar Renteria. “Rent-a-Wreck”, who was more disappointing than he was awful, was worth four-and-a-half times more in terms of wins than Julio Lugo was able to amass over the course of over 1,000 plate appearances with the Sox in his lone season with the club.
The torture was set aside in 2010, with Marco Scutaro coming in just shy of 3.0 WARP despite playing through injuries for much of the second half. He was about half-a-win behind the total output of Sox shortstops from 2005-2009, while injured, in 1,645 fewer plate appearances.
I said it’s “shocking” that three playoff teams would have shortstops of this caliber, but when you think of how the league is at present, it’s not that surprising, even if it is somewhat depressing. The Red Sox won a World Series with Lugo as their shortstop in 2007, for one, because if you are going to punt at any position, at least on offense, shortstop is the one to do it. They had the lowest average True Average of any position this year, and hit a collective .260/.319/.372. Of course you want to have a quality shortstop if you can, but if it comes down to paying Orlando Cabrera the baseball equivalent of pennies in order to afford help elsewhere, at more talent-infused positions, then the decision you make is a no-brainer. There just are not enough quality shortstops around the league, and using the average TAv is even somewhat deceiving, as most of the offensive value is wrapped up in four or five shortstops (Hanley Ramirez, Troy Tulowitzki, etc.) while the rest are league average hitters or far worse.
It has been nightmarish the past few seasons trying to find a shortstop who can help Boston, but as many of the playoff teams are showing, it’s not a position you need to fill if you have other holes. It’s not just former Sox shortstops, either–Derek Jeter was good but not great this year, Jason Bartlett of the Rays has more vitriol spewed at him from the intelligentsia than anyone else on the roster, Elvis Andrus had a slugging percentage hovering around the .300 mark this year despite playing in a hitter’s park, and the Padres, who just missed the playoffs, employed Miguel Tejada there for most of the second half because they knew they could get away with it.
If you see Marco Scutaro fail to make a play, or fail to drive in a runner in 2011, just remember that, in one season, he almost matched half-a-decade’s worth of value. As Boston fans, we are spoiled by the memory of Nomar, a memory that subsequent shortstops did their best to soil. You don’t need a star at the position in order to succeed–sure, you’re taking advantage of positional scarcity by having one, but there are just a handful of shortstops you can call elite, and almost the entire league is left with something closer to average or Gonzalezian in nature. Be thankful that Boston has a player of Scutaro’s caliber, and hope that when his contract runs out, they have someone to fill his shoes. If not though, it’s not a big deal, even if it does make you want to tear your hair out.