I believe that much of the hand-wringing and gloom-and-doom predicting about production from the Red Sox shortstop position is premature and overly pessimistic.
I predict that Mike Aviles is going to surprise everyone and have the best year of his career, calming some of that fluttering in the collective breast of Red Sox Nation.
Last year's midseason utility infielder acquisition from Kansas City played some outfield at the end of 2011 in order to increase his versatility, and he expected to spend a lot more time in the outfield during spring training. Then came the unexpected—and to many, inexplicable—salary-dump trade of regular shortstop Marco Scutaro to the Rockies.
End of outfield experiment for Aviles.
Aviles, who turns 31 on March 13, is a right-handed hitter with some speed who hit well after coming to Boston in 2011. He can play second, short and third—and even some outfield, as mentioned above.
At Concordia College he was the 2003 Division III Player of the Year, having hit .500 with 22 home runs. Kansas City drafted him in the seventh round that year, but it took him a few years in the minors to find his game. He finally earned a call-up in 2007 when he was 27 years old.
Aviles is a great fit with Boston if he gets regular playing time in a good lineup. "Even if the season starts with a Red Sox platoon at short," writes J.B. Gilpin of TheFakeBaseball.com, "Aviles can play third and second, along with some emergency outfield, should any injuries arise."
Bottom line: I don't think GM Ben Cherington would have moved Scutaro that quickly if his coaching staff had not reassured him that Mike Aviles was up to the task.
Here are five reasons to support that conclusion.
After coming over from the Royals, his hitting was a pleasant surprise. After putting up an anemic .222 average in Kansas City the first half of 2011, he hit .317 in 38 games (101 at-bats) for Boston after the trade.
However, that batting average for the Red Sox was not an out-of-character aberration; after returning from surgery in 2010 he was the Royals’ starting second baseman, and he hit .304 in 110 games. (The operation, incidentally, was Tommy John surgery—very unusual for a position player. It also adds Aviles to the ever-increasing list of Boston players who have undergone that procedure.)
Aviles' stat line for his four major league seasons shows a .288 average, .318 OBP, .419 slugging percentage and an OPS of .737. If you take out his lost 2009 season prior to his surgery when he hit .183/.208/.250, he has a career batting average of .2994.
Add in the fact that he played his entire career before now in cavernous Kaufman Stadium, and there is every reason to be optimistic about his offensive production.
To put this in perspective, only three AL shortstops hit better than .288 last year (Peralta, Jeter and Escobar). For 2012, ESPN projects that not a single AL shortstop will even reach that number.
Aviles will be hitting in a considerably more hitter-friendly park with a much stronger lineup around him. If he just reaches his career-average numbers, he could lead all AL shortstops in batting average.
What's not to like about that scenario?
Some have criticized Aviles for alleged defensive shortcomings, but those critics probably did not delve deep enough into the numbers. He has played second, third, short and some outfield; the problems he had primarily occurred at third base. His defense at shortstop has been above league averages in fielding percentage and the various range factors that statisticians love to bedazzle us with.
According to Fangraphs, Mike Aviles has a career 12.4 UZR/150 at shortstop, which is above league average and clearly better than Marco Scutaro.
He is 15 defensive runs saved per year above average, and his total zone fielding, according to Baseball Reference, is worth about nine runs per season above average.
So why does he have such a bad rap defensively?
Matt Sullivan of RantSports.com suggests that Royals GM Dayton Moore heads up a staff which does not rely as much on advanced statistics as most other teams—especially the Red Sox.
"After a 2008 season where UZR credited Aviles with 11.7 runs saved and Total Zone credited him with 6 runs saved, the Royals moved him to second base and eventually acquired Yuniesky Betancourt (career -48.8 UZR and -21 TZ) to play short in his place."
The unfortunate fallout from that move was a perception that Aviles could not handle the shortstop position. The reality is that he handles shortstop better than second base, and much better than third base.
Fast forward to 2012, and Aviles is already playing nine innings at shortstop in Grapefruit League games—almost unheard of for a starter at this time of year.
“Out of all the positions, the one that feels the easiest for things to come back naturally has been short(stop) for me," Aviles told Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald. "It’s one position I feel like I can take the least amount of reps and get the most comfortable quicker,” he said. “I’m starting to feel more comfortable playing the game, pretty much.”
In the Boston lineup he will be hitting behind and/or around the likes of Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, Cody Ross and Carl Crawford.
This is going to give him a lot of RBI and run-scoring opportunities.
At the same time, playing in Boston is going to help him improve the biggest hole in his offensive game—he takes very few walks, which lowers his OBP and runs total.
The Red Sox are known for being one of the most patient hitting teams in the league. Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez are always among the league leaders in PPA—Pitches seen per Plate Appearance. That number is usually well over four for the most patient hitters.
The league average PPA has been hovering around 3.8 for the last three seasons. For his career, Aviles has seen only 3.48 pitches per PA (3.39 in 2011). It follows that Aviles rarely walks—just 4.2 percent of the time in his career.
Michael Barr of FanGraphs points out that he is also a free swinger: Aviles cuts at a very high number of the total pitches he sees (51.3 percent, against the 2011 league average of 46.2 percent).
He also swings at more bad pitches than the normal hitter, but he avoids the worst consequences of that habit because of his excellent contact rate (85.3 percent for his career). He seldom swings and misses—just 7.2 percent of the time, "which while not quite Pedroia good, is still well above average," Barr concludes.
Up to this point in his career, he has only been able to get on base by getting a hit.
Barr believes that a full season in Fenway might be just what the doctor ordered for a righty like Aviles who is able to use the whole field. "The monster turns a few extra fly outs into hits and the expansive right field lets a few extra bloopers fall in."
If his teammates and the coaching staff are also able to help him become a more patient hitter, his production numbers could rise significantly.
With this batting order, in this ballpark, Aviles has a very good chance to hit .300 or close to it, with 14 home runs, more than 20 steals and as many as 80 RBI.
One thing is clear from Aviles' history: The more he plays, the better he does. Of course, there's a health factor built in there as well—but check his stats. The year in which he mustered 286 at-bats (2010), he hit .304. In 2008, when he had 418 at-bats, he hit .325 and finished fourth in voting for the Rookie of the Year.
J.B. Gilpin of TheFakeBaseball.com points out that his lesser numbers in both 2009 (when he was injured) and 2011 (in Kansas City) also suffered from bad luck, since his batting average on balls in play in those years was .233 and .276.
Another factor is Fenway Park versus Kaufman Stadium. The Kansas City park surrendered the second-fewest home runs in all of baseball last year, even with the addition of hitters like Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francouer.
Aviles has shown some pop, even in Kansas City; he hit 10 home runs in 2008, and last year he generated seven long balls in only 286 at-bats. With 450 at-bats, and half of them staring at the Green Monster, that number could easily become 12 to 14 HR.
"Then there’s the allure of ballpark fit," writes Michael Barr of FanGraphs. "Aviles is happiest when he’s pulling the ball, and it just so happens that Fenway is happy to deliver a lot of doubles to right-handed pull hitters due to something about a big wall in left."
Barr bolsters his argument with the fact that Aviles is a career .368/.366/.638 pull hitter, hitting nearly 90 percent of his home runs to left field.
The combination of regular playing time, a ballpark that suits his hitting strengths and a lineup that gives him more opportunities to hit good pitches bodes well for Aviles and the Red Sox.
Barr concludes, "A shortstop with the potential to hit for average and provide double digit home runs and stolen bases is pretty valuable."
Some people think that the spotlight on Aviles will create tremendous pressure for him to produce, and that he will not.
I think the opposite.
The bar has been set low by all the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth about the black hole the Red Sox created at shortstop by dumping Marco Scutaro. People forget that range to Marco Scutaro was something he cooked on in his kitchen. Aviles will be a pleasant surprise defensively.
As the previous slides suggest, he has every opportunity to become an unexpectedly good performer as a hitter. He is also a good baserunner with some speed; over the past two years he has stolen 28 bases in 37 tries, a success rate of 76 percent.
Even if he starts the season platooning with Nick Punto at short, his versatility and his offense will keep him in the lineup most days. When not starting, he's a capable pinch-hitter (.333 for his career in nine AB). Just as importantly, he is a legitimate pinch-running option off the bench (which the Red Sox are lacking now that the immortal Joey Gathright is playing with Jose Canseco in the Mexican League.)
Given this upside, he is also a bargain salary-wise. The Red Sox avoided arbitration by signing him to a one-year contract worth $1.2 million, according to WBZ-TV's Dan Roche.
Despite this potential, Aviles is getting little or no fantasy love so far. According to ESPN's live draft results, he’s ranked at 397 and has only been drafted in 1.9 percent of leagues. Again, this means less pressure and lower expectations, not more.
I also don't think fans will be scoreboard-watching in Colorado to see what kind of numbers Marco Scutaro is putting up. They will be keeping an eye on Pawtucket box scores, and so long as Jose Iglesias does not turn into the second coming of Nomar Garciaparra, Aviles will get his chance to shine.
All of this adds up to a golden opportunity for Aviles, and I for one think he's up to the challenge.