Scutaro would be a fit for Red Sox
Free-agent shortstop would cost Boston a draft pick
One issue was resolved Tuesday when the Jays offered Scutaro arbitration. Contrary to speculation (including mine) that the Blue Jays would not offer arbitration to Scutaro after signing Gonzalez to play short next season, Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos did so, projecting Scutaro as a utility player if he returns to Toronto. That won't happen, not when the Red Sox need a shortstop and other clubs are looking at Scutaro to play either of the two middle-infield positions.
As much as the Red Sox would hate to part with a first-round draft pick to sign Scutaro, which they'd be required to do, that loss would be mitigated by gaining picks if they lose either of their two Type A free agents, outfielder Jason Bay or reliever Billy Wagner.
The Sox offered both Bay and Wagner salary arbitration Tuesday, which assures them two draft picks if either elects to sign with another club. The Sox would get a first-round pick plus an additional "sandwich" pick between the first and second rounds if the team signing either Bay or Wagner does not have one of the first 15 picks in the June 2010 draft. If it does, the Sox would get that team's second-round pick plus a sandwich pick.
The order of the draft is determined by flipping last season's standings, with the team with the worst record, the Washington Nationals, picking first.
The Sox want Bay back and would take Wagner, although the left-hander is more likely to sign with a team willing to give him a chance to close.
Gonzalez was not listed on the Elias Sports Bureau's free-agent rankings (a complicated formula used to identify Type A free agents as those ranking in the top 20 percent at their position in the past two years and Type B players in the top 40 percent), so the Blue Jays did not have to surrender draft picks when they signed Gonzalez to a one-year deal for $2.75 million with a $2.5 million option for the 2011 season.
The Red Sox were willing to offer Gonzalez a one-year deal to return, but because they didn't compete with the Blue Jays for his services, they obviously feel they can do better at the position, especially offensively.
The Sox have their shortstop of the future in Cuban defector Jose Iglesias, who sparkled in his Arizona Fall League debut. "The Red Sox could probably start him at Double-A next season if they wanted to," said one scout who watched him play. "He hit better than I thought he would, a real pesky, No. 2-type hitter, and the thing I really liked is that the kid was often the first one on the field, the first one in and out of the dugout, and smiling all the time, like he really loves the game. And defensively, the package is all there -- the arm, the hands, the range."
But since general manager Theo Epstein dealt icon Nomar Garciaparra at the trade deadline in July 2004, only rats have been sighted more often than shortstops in The Fens.
The Red Sox have invested more than $90 million into the position since the Garciaparra era ended unceremoniously, and seven different players have started at least 30 games in a season at short since. In 2009, four different players started 30 or more games at short -- Julio Lugo, Jed Lowrie, Nick Green and Gonzalez, who in August was brought back for his second go-round with the team.
Orlando Cabrera played a pivotal role in Boston's run to a World Series title in 2004 but was allowed to become a free agent afterward. The Sox were dissatisfied with his plate discipline and disenchanted by some off-the-field issues, significant enough that there is no chance they would sign him again this offseason.
Edgar Renteria, signed to a four-year, $40 million deal in 2005, projected as a better hitter than Cabrera but flopped defensively in his one season in Boston, making 30 errors. The Sox were so eager to get rid of him that they ate $11 million of his contract when trading him to Atlanta after the '05 season.
Gonzalez played exquisite defense in 2006, but Epstein opted again for more offense and threw $36 million and four years at Lugo, who rewarded him with declining production and intolerable defense. The Sox finally let Lugo go this past summer to St. Louis and ate another $12 million in the process.
The Sox thought they'd finally found stability at the position with Lowrie, but the promising rookie underwent wrist surgery at the start of the season, came back after three months, and is still dealing with complications that make his future uncertain.
So now the Sox would seem to have little choice in a weak free-agent market and with no obvious trade possibilities (dream on about Hanley Ramirez) but to do business with Scutaro, a 34-year-old Venezuelan coming off a career year with the Blue Jays.
Scutaro fits the profile of what the Sox like in a hitter. This past season, he batted leadoff for the Blue Jays, and he had an on-base percentage during the past two seasons of .362, second among American League shortstops only to Derek Jeter's .385.
Look at some of the more exotic numbers measuring plate discipline, as calculated by FanGraphs.com, and Scutaro's attractiveness to the Sox becomes even more apparent. He ranked first among American Leaguers in swinging at the fewest pitches outside the strike zone (12.3 percent), a category in which the Sox had three players (J.D. Drew, Kevin Youkilis and Bay) among the top 17. Scutaro also ranked first in the AL at making contact (93.3 percent), just ahead of Dustin Pedroia (93 percent) and second to Bobby Abreu for lowest percentage of swings taken (34.5 percent to Abreu's 32.9 percent).
And Scutaro's defensive drop-off compared to Gonzalez is not as pronounced as some would have you think. He ranked seventh this past season among qualifying shortstops in ultimate zone rating per 150 games, a metric that measures how many runs above or below average a player is, and actually scored higher than Gonzalez in ErrR, which measures how many runs above or below average a fielder is, as determined by the number of errors he makes compared to the average fielder. Granted, defensive stats still ignite more debate regarding their reliability as compared to their offensive numbers. But if you take his defensive and offensive numbers together, Scutaro scored a 4.8 in something called WAR, which means wins above replacement player, a rating that ranked him in the top 35 among position players.
Scutaro's age would make him a bad bet for a multiyear deal, so the Sox will try to sign him for the shortest term possible -- a year and an option would be ideal, a two-year contract more likely. If another team seeking Scutaro's services offers three years -- he told a Venezuelan newspaper that the Dodgers are interested in having him play second, and Seattle also has interest -- it's all but inconceivable that the Sox would match. They'd then take their chances on finding someone before spring training while hoping Lowrie regains full use of his wrist.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.
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