Mike Aviles: Can He End the Red Sox Jinx at Shortstop?
Call it “The Curse of Orlando Cabrera.”
Ever since the Boston Red Sox opted not to sign the slick-fielding, clutch-hitting Cabrera following their World Series triumph in 2004, the team has gone through a revolving door of shortstops. Sometimes they’ve gone with glove men like Alex Gonzalez (2006). Other times they’ve opted for guys with offensive reputations like Julio Lugo (2007-08). But nothing has stuck.
Mike Aviles might be the answer to this quandary that has gone on for nearly a decade.
Through 16 games, Aviles is hitting .328 with four home runs, 13 RBIs and a team-leading 14 runs. He’s been particularly strong while filling in for the injured Jacoby Ellsbury in the leadoff spot, during which time his average has risen over 30 points.
Is this just a hot streak or can Aviles keep this up and make Boston fans forget an already forgettable cast of former shortstops from the past seven seasons? There are legitimate reasons to believe that the latter is possible.
1. Not Burdened by Expectations
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Aviles is making a modest $1.2 million in 2012, and before the season began there was doubt as to whether he would even be the starting shortstop over prospect Jose Iglesias or journeyman Nick Punto. Few expected the early season success he has enjoyed.
This might be a good thing, because the last two Boston shortstops of whom much was expected flamed out.
Then general manager Theo Epstein handed lucrative four-year deals to both Edgar Renteria (2005) and Julio Lugo (2007) with hopes that they would provide stability at shortstop. Neither one of them could handle the Boston pressure cooker.
While Renteria finished 2005 with a solid .276 batting average and over 100 runs scored, he was a disappointment in the field (a career-high 31 errors) and in the postseason (a .231 average as Boston was swept by the Chicago White Sox in the first round). One year was enough for the Red Sox and for Renteria, who was traded to the Braves in December of that year.
Lugo’s struggles were even worse. Brought in to lead off, Lugo struggled so mightily at the plate that he was moved to the bottom part of the order. He finished his one full season in Boston batting .237 and a paltry OBP of .294. After battling injuries for the next season and a half, Lugo was designated for assignment by the Red Sox in July 2009.
There are no expectations for Aviles to fold under like there were for Renteria and Lugo. As long as he’s a solid performer, the Red Sox will take it.
2. Knows He’s Replaceable If He Struggles
Did the comfort of a multi-year contract breed complacency in Renteria and Lugo?
It’s impossible to prove that they slacked off once they signed their hefty contracts, but money can give players a sense of security that erodes their skills. Plus, the financial investment involved makes it so that the team feels obligated to put them in the lineup each day, even if their on-field performance suggests otherwise.
Aviles doesn’t have that luxury. Iglesias’ performance this spring had many pundits and fans imploring the Red Sox to give the Cuban émigré the starting job. And Punto, signed to a two-year deal in the offseason, has been a solid utility infielder throughout his career and brings with him a championship pedigree: he hit .278 and committed just two errors in 63 games with the Cardinals last year.
At 31 years old, Aviles knows that his window for becoming a major league regular is closing. If he doesn’t deliver now, there’s no telling if he’ll get another shot. Having Iglesias and Punto waiting in the wings in the event that he falters has to provide great motivation every time he steps on the field.
3. Proven Performer
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Aviles’ success this season is something he’s experienced before. In his 2008 rookie season, Aviles batted .325 in 102 games with the Kansas City Royals. Had he registered enough plate appearances, Aviles would have finished third for the American League batting title. As a result of his performance, he finished fourth in the ’08 AL Rookie of the Year standings.
After missing most of 2009 following Tommy John surgery that May, Aviles batted .304 in 110 games in 2010. Following his trade to Boston at last year’s deadline, he batted .317 in 107 plate appearances.
When Aviles has gotten the opportunity to play consistently, he has delivered. For his career he is a solid .290 hitter and a steady if unspectacular fielder. The Red Sox would be wise to keep Aviles in their lineup as an effective, complementary piece to mashers like Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis. Aviles will get good pitches to hit, and his track record suggests that he will take advantage of them.
4. Thick Skin
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Delicate egos need not apply when it comes to being successful in Boston. Whenever things go south for them, Red Sox fans and media eat those players alive, and recovery is a slow process (if not an impossible one, in some cases).
Aviles doesn’t possess that type of ego. The long road he’s taken throughout his baseball career never gave him an opportunity to develop one.
He played four years at Division II Concordia (N.Y.) College (where he was the 2003 national player of the year) and another four years of minor league baseball after that before making it to the big leagues. Despite hitting over .300 in both of his full seasons in Kansas City (2008 and ’10), the Royals optioned him to Triple-A in 2011 to make room for top prospect Mike Moustakas.
Because he’s never been coddled, Aviles isn’t as sensitive to the media circus around the Red Sox as past players have been. He’s able to shrug off incident like the alleged spring training blow-up with manager Bobby Valentine (which he denies ever happened). He can just play.
5. Gritty Player
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In Tuesday’s win over the Twins, Aviles was called out on a checked swing third strike, much to his dismay.
Never mind that the Red Sox were winning 10-2 at the time. Or that he had already smacked a home run and two doubles in addition to laying down a sacrifice bunt (talk about a selfless player). Like Dustin Pedroia—whose locker is not far from Aviles’ in the Fenway home clubhouse—Aviles goes all out, all the time and will get in people’s faces if need be.
He’ll even be accountable for himself at times when he comes up short. He made a back-breaking error during the Yankees’ 15-9 comeback win on April 21, after which he said, “We didn’t help our pitchers defensively, starting with myself.”
Fans and teammates love those types of players. They don’t react to adversity by lying down but by pushing back. Aviles’ near-confrontation with the home plate umpire in Tuesday’s game demonstrated how dead set he is on helping the Sox forget about their wretched start to the season.
Not to mention how dead set he is on making a place for himself in a major league infield, both this year and beyond.