Lowrie: Long-Term Solution At Short?

Evan Brunell@evanbrunellFeatured ColumnistJuly 23, 2008

The Red Sox signed Julio Lugo prior to the 2007 season mostly out of necessity. Sure, Theo Epstein long favored Lugo at an eventual replacement at shortstop when he hit free agency following decent years in a Rays uniform, and since the complete black hole of a bat Alex Gonzalez provided would not be sufficient in the long term, Epstein needed a shortstop and handed Lugo a contract Theo and Red Sox fans deeply regret. While his defense improved in 2007, it has greatly depreciated this season, and while the hitting aspect of Lugo’s game has improved slightly this season from a disastrous 2007, it is still nowhere near Tampa levels or what Theo could have expected. Julio Lugo has been, frankly, a gigantic bust.

While an injury to a player is never something to be applauded, Lugo found himself on the shelf last week, and the Red Sox could be without his services, or lack thereof, for 4-6 weeks. With Alex Cora as the only backup infielder on the roster and someone who should never, ever see an everyday job on a major league team at this point, the only proper move for the Red Sox was to promote Jed Lowrie. Long heralded as the shortstop of the future and the top infield prospect in the Sox system, Lowrie would finally be able to show his game for an extended period of time in the big show.

Lowrie, a switch-hitter, was drafted by the Red Sox in the first round of the 2005 draft out of Stanford, where he earned Pac 10 Player of the Year honors and earned First Team All-American from Baseball America. Lowrie has definitely made a splash in his time with the Red Sox minor league system, garnering a place on the Eastern League All-Star Team in 2007 and being named Portland Sea Dogs MVP in the same season before his promotion to Pawtucket. There Lowrie was tremendous- .300/.356/.506 with 16 doubles in 180 AB.

With Lugo experiencing a brutal campaign at shortstop with the big club, many Red Sox fans began pining for Lowrie to begin 2008 as the full-time starter. The Red Sox front office faced a tough situation. The Edgar Renteria disaster forced management to pay for a large chunk of his contract to play with the Atlanta Braves, and the entire front office really didn’t want to deal with the same type of quandary. So, because Lugo made nine million annually, he retained the job and was given another shot. It’s clear Lugo may never figure it out in a Red Sox uniform, and just as Lowrie was busy putting up a respectable .793 OPS in Pawtucket, Lugo went down with the aforementioned injury.

Is Jed Lowrie the answer at shortstop? Good question. Few argue Lowrie would be able to put up Lugo’s offensive numbers right away in the majors. Most would probably concur he could put up much stronger numbers with the pine. Lowrie possesses strong doubles power while Lugo has turned into plainly a singles hitter. Much like other Sox prospects, Lowrie’s plate discipline is excellent and he’s equally effective from both sides of the plate. The ability for Lowrie to put up .275/.360/.420 annually for the Red Sox is not out of the question at all, which is good offensive value from that position.

The question with Lowrie is his defense at the shortstop position. He’s always been intelligent, steady and reliable at short. His range is average and arm shows glimpses of being plus, but accuracy can be an issue. Scouts differ on whether Lowrie can last as a shortstop in the majors- some see him moving to second base because of his arm, while other see third base as a more adequate placement due to his somewhat limited range. Obviously the only chance for Lowrie to change positions and play with the Red Sox would be after the 2010 season, when Mike Lowell departs. From what I’ve seen out of Jed, I feel like he can handle the position well enough for it to not be a problem at all.

Lowrie now has an opportunity to keep the shortstop job his own for the rest of the season. Yes, Lugo’s contract is a difficult one to dump on the bench, but the clear upgrade won’t be overlooked by the team and Francona surely won’t have any problem making a permanent switch. Lowrie is hitting .300/.338/.417 with the big club in 60 AB with zero errors at shortstop. Lowrie might be able to make such an impression that the Red Sox pencil him in for their starting SS in 2009, avoiding spending money on a free agent and dumping the last two years of Lugo’s contract, even if it forces them to pay some of his salary.

With Lowrie in the lineup, you add another switch hitter with a viable stick and decent defense, definitely an upgrade over the struggling Lugo. If Jed can take the bull by the horns and contribute positively, you remove a near black hole from the lineup and a defensive liability, making the Red Sox already fearsome order even more fearsome. It’s fair to say Red Sox fans across the country are crossing their fingers that Lowrie is the answer at a position that’s been unstable since Nomar departed.