The Red Sox are one of the few teams with any legitimate roster concerns for the 2011 season. Other than determining who starts the year as the 25th man (probably Darnell McDonald at this point) and who fills out the final two bullpen spots (they have a bevy of options), there's little left to be decided.
Issues will quickly arise not of which players are playing where, but how well they are performing. On paper, they have arguably the best team in baseball; it's just a matter of the level of production that they get.
However, the shortstop position is still up in the air. The job figures to go to either Marco Scutaro, Boston's everyday shortstop in 2010; or Jed Lowrie, the much-beleaguered 26-year-old, who finally showed everyone his talent (and his improved health) during the final two months of the 2010 season.
It's not the most earth-shattering position battle, but it's certainly a bit more enlightening than the debates that have developed amongst Red Sox nation; there are only so many times you can point to Adrian Gonzalez's career home/road splits and his seemingly "limitless" home run potential.
What's so intriguing about the debate is that one can make an equally sound pitch for either player. Their skillsets aren't all that different, and the edge that Marco Scutaro has in experience is counterbalanced by the edge that Lowrie has in upside.
However, if you ask Terry Francona, "Marco Scutaro is the shortstop." Tito has given his normally conservative response whenever asked about the shortstop gig.
And, as a consummate player's manager, there's no reason for Francona to say anything else. There's nothing to gain by undermining the solid season that Scutaro had for the Red Sox in 2010. It wouldn't be fair to Scutaro or Lowrie to transfer the starting job during the offseason.
But GM Theo Epstein recently shed some light on the situation when he told the media this:
"If we're a better team with one guy playing two-thirds of the time and the other guy playing one-third of the time and moving around, that's what we'll be. If it looks like we'll be a better team with a more traditional arrangement or a time share, that's what we'll do. Players, ultimately, make those decisions for you.
"Scutaro signed here to be the shortstop. He should be healthy when he comes to camp, and he's going to play a lot of shortstop. But we're not good enough that we can't use every available resource that we have.
"Jed Lowrie is someone who can play a good shortstop, can play a number of positions, and can help this team win. He's going to see some time at shortstop. But Marco was our shortstop last year, and, until something changes, that's how it's going to be."
With one of the rare straight answers the fans get from any sports executives in Boston, Epstein essentially confirmed what we all suspected without any hard evidence. If Lowrie plays well, he has a chance to win over the starting job.
As mentioned before, the biggest benefit that Lowrie comes with is his upside. It showed last season, when he hit .287/.381/.526/.907 with 9 HR and 24 RBI in 197 plate appearances. His walk rate was a sublime 12.7 percent, and he showed the particular blend of patience at the plate and ability to drive the ball that the Red Sox covet in all their hitters.
And, at age 35, we know what we'll get from Marco Scutaro: a player who goes out there and gives a good effort in all facets of the game, but doesn't wow in any one area.
Scutaro: 153 G, 666 PA, 160 H, 10 HR, 85 R, 60 RBI, .266/.339/.374/.714
Lowrie: 144 G, 550 PA, 130 H, 17 HR, 75 R, 75 RBI, .270/.361/.467/.828
I'd say that both predictions are fairly spot on. While both are tied to overall playing time, I think both players would yield similar results if they got the requisite number of plate appearances.
What might be surprising to some people is the amount of projected power James has Lowrie slated for.
During Lowrie's first two seasons, he averaged one home run every 82 plate appearances. Last year, Lowrie averaged one home run every 21.9 plate appearances.
While it's unlikely that Lowrie hits with the same power rate over the course of a full season as he did in the final two months of 2010, James projects a healthy HR per 32.4 plate appearances.
Last year, Lowrie's wrist was finally healthy, and as a result he was able to drive the ball better than we've ever seen him do in the majors. I expect this trend to continue in 2011.
If I had to guess, I'd probably say Scutaro ends up as the starter/majority timeshare holder during the early part of the season. Barring injury or underproduction from Lowrie, the upside he has in potential run production could certainly mean that when push comes to shove, he's the one getting the bulk of the playing time at short by the end of the season.
Regardless of who starts for the Red Sox, both Scutaro and Lowrie should be valuable parts of the 2011 team. Both bring reliable defense at a number of different infield positions and both will be utilized whenever the Red Sox feel the need to get a left-handed bat out of the lineup.
Dan is a Boston Red Sox featured columnist. Follow him on Twitter @danhartelBR.
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