Is Marco Scutaro clearly the starting shortstop for the Red Sox?

Red Sox shortstop Marco Scutaro

There was an excellent article about Marco Scutaro in today’s Boston Globe. Columnist Nick Cafardo crafted an insightful story in which he detailed the shortstop’s health issues last season, providing a considerable amount of behind-the-scenes information that fans had not previously known. But does that mean Scutaro should be the Red Sox’ starting shortstop in 2011?

To a certain extent, Cafardo’s column comes across as a piece prepared by the Red Sox PR staff, an article the team would want to distribute in order to minimize (end?) the debate as to whether Scutaro or Jed Lowrie should be the starter when the season starts in Texas late next week. I’m sorry to sound cynical. While I know Dr Charles Steinberg has left the building, the column has the doc’s fingerprints all over it.

The Sox front office has had a horrible track record since dealing Nomar Garciaparra at the trade deadline in 2004. There has been a procession of shortstops go through the proverbial revolving door ever since: Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Julio Lugo, Alex Cora, Alex Gonzalez, Lowrie and Scutaro, among others. I never understood the reasons Theo & Company dispatched Gonzalez last winter (and I argued at the time the decision was a drastic mistake)… the team preferred Scutaro and bestowed a two-year, $12.5 million contract on him.

Overall, his perforance last year wasn’t especially good… but the truth of the matter is that it wasn’t especially bad, either. And the Cafardo column helps to put his struggles in context. A couple of weeks ago, we were spoon-fed the information that Scutaro dealt with a pinched nerve in his neck early in the year and that he dealt with it throughout the season… we also learned he experienced an on-going problem with his shoulder. Today we learned that his shoulder had actually atrophied:

Cafardo: “(H)e often showed reporters the difference in size between his biceps. It was amazing how he managed, but he fought through it.” (Like I said, it sounds like it was prepared by someone on the Red Sox paid to fluff and massage egos)

Scutaro said he played through considerable because he didn’t want to cede what he had worked so hard to achieve – “a chance to start in the major leagues.” Cafardo quoted Scutaro as saying: “I spent so much time on the bench (early in my big league career) that I always want to play.”

So he played.

He also played because of the succession of injuries that befell his teammates. Pedroia couldn’t play. Youkilis couldn’t play. Martinez couldn’t play. Ellsbury couldn’t play. But Scutaro could – it just hurt to do so. He sucked it up: “When you’re a little guy like me, you have to be tough. You don’t have any choice.’”

But does all of this mean he should be the starting shortstop in 2011? Opinions seem to be split on the subject. IMO, that is why the PR Machine is in overdrive – so people will accept the fact that Scutaro WILL be the starter, at least at the beginning of the season. (So sayeth the shepherd…)

I expect the organization will decide he is the best man for the job. After all, they will want to justify paying him more than $6 million this year. And since there doesn’t appear to be a clear favorite, they may as well play the veteran they are paying big bucks. But is it the right decision?

Scutaro has played in 990 games over 9 seasons. He has a career stat line of .267/.336/.385… not especially impressive. But he has matured offensively as his career has progressed, and over the last two years he has hit .278, with 23 HR, 116 RBI and 192 R while compiling an OPS+ of 100. Defensively, he has typically been sub-standard (though he uncharacteristically posted a UZR of 17.8 in 2008). Last year, in spite of playing in tremendous pain, his UZR was a minus-2.9.

Meanwhile, Jed Lowrie has been hampered by a succession of injuries that has minimized his opportunities for playing time and left officials wondering if he will ever be healthy enough to play regularly. He has played 168 games over three seasons and compiled a career stat line of .253/.336/.425, including .287/.381/.526 last year (his 2010 BA, OBP and Slugging Percentage were each better than Scutaro has ever posted in any season). Last year he hit 9 HR and drove in 24 runs in 171 AB. Defensively, his combined UZR over three years is 7.3 (minus-1.8 last year).

The club has an interest in playing Scutaro because it wants to justify his salary; but, they also have an interest in playing Lowrie because they need to find out what he can do — and with Jose Iglesias waiting in the wings to inherit the starting job next year, the club may want to build the Stanford grad’s trade value for next winter.

What’s a manager to do? Well, it says here that the club’s best option is to platoon the two players depending on who is on the mound.

A look at the player’s career splits show that Scutaro has been relatively consistent throughout his career against RHP and LHP… he has hit .271/.333/.379 against right-handers and .259/.344/.398 against southpaws. On the other hand, Lowrie has hit much better against lefties (.309/.417/.537) than he has against righties (.222/.290/.364).

So the answer to my question is both “yes” and “no”. In this instance, platooning makes a lot of sense from a statistical standpoint. Additionally, both players would spend most of the year in the right-hand batters box… not the worst thing that could happen on a team widely considered to be too left-handed. And then there is the argument that the periodic day off would help to keep Scutaro fresh throughout the entire season.

Scutaro would get most of the starts as there are more right-handed pitchers, but Lowrie would get the start Opening day in Texas (vs LHP CJ Wilson).

Red Sox infielder Jed Lowrie

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