The Real Shortstop Controversy

There’s been a lot of chatter recently regarding the shortstop controversy brewing between Jed Lowrie and Marco Scutaro.  While it’s certainly relevant to debate the merits of both players, I can’t help but wonder if we’re focusing on the wrong shortstop controversy.  What do I mean?  The 2011 shortstop situation is interesting, but the potential controversy looming between Lowrie and Jose Iglesias, the Red Sox’s top prospect and shortstop of the future, is far more interesting.

A couple of days ago, Matt Collins of the blog Red Stockings Thoughts came to a similar conclusion.  Here’s what he had to say.

“Jed Lowrie is an interesting case even if he does keep some semblance of his production all through 2011. Lowrie is a free agent, which you could make the case would make him more likely to keep this production in search of a big contract, and the Red Sox have prospect Jose Iglesias. The young shortstop is in AAA Pawtucket, and is projected to be ready in 2012 to make the jump to the bigs. If Lowrie has a big year, there will definitely be fans pushing to resign Jed. I don’t anticipate Lowrie being in Boston next year unless he puts up really good numbers. The Red Sox have been talking about Iglesias for years now, and they seem to be determined to give him a shot. They’ve had good luck with prospects in the past, and if everything we hear about this kid’s glove is true, the Red Sox could have a potential juggernaut up the middle of the field.”

First thing that I want to note is that Lowrie won’t actually be eligible for free agency after the season.  According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, he still has all three seasons of arbitration eligibility, and won’t become a free agent until after the 2014 season.  I don’t want that point to overshadow the rest of the excerpt because Matt’s larger point remains extraordinarily relevant:  what do the Red Sox do if Lowrie continues to produce and Iglesias shows that he’s ready for the big leagues?

That’s a tough question.  Presumably, Scutaro was brought in with the purpose of holding down the fort while Iglesias finished his two year minor league apprenticeship.  With Lowrie’s emergence as an offensive force, that potentially throws a wrench into that plan.  As we all remember, Lowrie was the team’s shortstop of the future before he fell prey to a lingering wrist injury and a case of mononucleosis.  Now that Lowrie’s on the verge of turning himself into a known quantity, is it in the Red Sox best interest to move him in favor of a lesser known, and higher risk, quantity in Iglesias?  Yes, I know.  If only all teams were so lucky to have such a problem.  Still, as nice of an issue “too much talent” is to have, it’s one that will need to be resolved.

While it’s hard to deny Iglesias’s immense potential, I’m more than a little concerned, at least in the short-term; he won’t hit enough to justify playing every day in the majors.  Yes, I know.  His status as a top prospect is primarily based on his outstanding defense.  With a plus-arm, above average range, and outstanding instincts, a prospect who plays a premium defensive position, like Iglesias, can afford to be somewhat deficient in the department of offense.  Still, that doesn’t mean said player can produce seasons that are completely bankrupt of offensive contributions.

Through his first season-plus of playing in professionally in America, he’s shown very little in terms of power or on-base abilities.  Last season, between short-season A and AA ball, he produced a .295/.339/.379 triple slash line in 284 plate appearances.  Considering his age (20 years old) and competition level (236 PAs in AA), that’s actually not a terrible line.  Still, for someone who’s supposed to be a year away from being a regular contributor at the big league level, you’d expect better offensive production—even out of a defense oriented whiz kid.  This season, he’s produced an underwhelming .221/.250/.221 triple slash line.  Granted, the sample size (only 81 PAs) is incredibly small, but it further solidifies my concerns about his ability to provide adequate value with the bat.  As it stands, neither power nor on-base skills are ones that are likely to improve enough in the short-term to alter his already weak 2012 statistical projections.

How does Iglesias project for 2012?  With so many games remaining in the 2011 season, it’s too early to  nail down an accurate, reliable projection.  After all, he could put up a monster offensive season (or a historically futile one) that could greatly change our current outlook.  Instead, I looked to the 2010 season to find a few comparable players from which I could benchmark Iglesias’s performance and value.  I’ve selected Alcides Escobar (.270 wOBA), Yuniesky Betancourt (.300 wOBA), and Elvis Andrus (.320 wOBA) as comparables due to their similarities in offensive skill sets.  For the purpose of this example, I will assume Iglesias receives 600 PAs, plays 150 games at SS, and produces an elite level UZR consistent with his scouting report during the 2012 season.  Additionally, I’ve downgraded his WAR values by 0.3 WAR to adjust for the Fenway factor.  (Fangraphs also adjusts based on park factors.)  Here’s how he fares:

  wRAA Position Replacement UZR WAR
.270 wOBA -21.9 6.9 20.0 10.0 1.2
.300 wOBA -9.9 6.9 20.0 10.0 2.4
.320 wOBA -2.9 6.9 20.0 10.0 3.1

Assuming he hits at the “Betancourt” or “Andrus” levels; exhibits above average to elite level defense at shortstop; and remains healthy enough to play every day, Iglesias would be able to justify receiving playing time consistent with a starting position player.  Obviously, if he hits at the “Escobar” level, the Red Sox are probably better off either giving him a reduced role or giving him additional time to develop in AAA. 

What happens if he produces a +5.0 UZR defensively, rather than a +10.0?

  wRAA Position Replacement UZR WAR
.270 wOBA -21.9 6.9 20.0 5.0 0.7
.300 wOBA -9.9 6.9 20.0 5.0 1.9
.320 wOBA -2.9 6.9 20.0 5.0 2.6

At this point, he’s still good enough to play every day hitting at the “Andrus” level, and he’s right around the breakeven point hitting at the “Betancourt” level.  At the “Escobar” level, his production is unacceptable from a major league regular; especially one playing for a legitimate World Series contender.

Just for the sake of comparison, I decided to run the same test for Lowrie.  For the purpose of this example, I used similar (but different) parameters.  While the games played and plate appearance parameters remained the same, I chose to use different offensive and defensive benchmarks.  Considering Lowrie’s superior offensive abilities, I chose to use wOBA benchmarks at .345, .360, and .375.  For defense, since he’s considered to be average to below average defensively, I decided to set the benchmark at -5.0 runs.  As with the Iglesias example, I downgraded his WAR values by 0.3 WAR to adjust for the Fenway factor.  Here’s how Lowrie fared:

  wRAA Position Replacement UZR WAR
.345 wOBA 11.5 6.9 20.0 -5.0 3.0
.360 wOBA 18.0 6.9 20.0 -5.0 3.7
.375 wOBA 25.5 6.9 20.0 -5.0 4.4

With the single exception of Iglesias’s .320 wOBA/+10 UZR scenario edging out Lowrie’s .345 wOBA/-5.0 UZR scenario, Lowrie looks like a significantly better starting shortstop option in 2012.  In fact, he looks even better if his defense trends to the league average or above average levels per UZR.

Lowrie’s re-emergence as an offensive force and legitimate every day player gives the Red Sox the opportunity to take their time and allow their top prospect to continue his development in the low pressure (at least relatively) environment of the minor leagues.  Considering both Iglesias’s age (21), and the fact the Red Sox still hold two minor league options on him (due to the fact he signed a major league contract), it would probably be wise for the Red Sox to have him to continue to develop offensively in AAA for at least the 2013 season (and maybe even part of the 2014 season).  Once he’s proven he’s ready to give a balanced contribution every day, the Red Sox should promote him, and then possibly spin Lowrie off in a trade for prospects or other valuable pieces.  It makes too much sense not to consider this plan as a viable option.  This way, the Red Sox can leverage their depth, while playing for both the present and the future.

Categories: Boston Red Sox Jed Lowrie Jose Iglesias Marco Scutaro

After being slapped with a restraining order for stealing Nick Cafardo's mail, I was forced into retirement for a brief period of time. As fun as it was to lounge around the community pool and play shuffleboard with noted internet columnist, Murray Chass, I quickly felt a yearning to write again. Now in my second tenure with Fire Brand, I have set lofty goals of achieving world domination, ending the plight of the hipsters, and becoming BFFs with Mike Trout. I am fluent in two languages (Sarcasm and English, in that order); have an intimate relationship with M&Ms; firmly believe that Lucille is the best character on Arrested Development; and spend my spare time trolling select members of the Boston media. You can follow me on Twitter @Chip_Buck.

8 Responses to “The Real Shortstop Controversy” Subscribe

  1. Matt May 6, 2011 at 11:21 AM #

    I feel like Iglesias will have a lot of value on the trade market. His skillset is still loved by many organizations. He could be the center piece of a major trade. Personally, I don't get excited over plus-glove/no-bat players. He will probably be a productive player at the major league level, but I don't think it will be in Boston.

  2. Mr Punch May 6, 2011 at 12:03 PM #

    The answer is going to depend to some extent on the rest of the lineup. A contending team can carry one weak-hitting defensive whiz, certainly, but too many holes in the batting order means trouble. It has for the Sox so far this year, and it is what led to Lowrie's increasing role.

    Now think about the 2012 Red Sox. What are the chances of substantial offensive production at catcher? What are reasonable expectations for Kalish (?) in right? Will they believe they can afford an offensive downgrade at SS?

    Of course, they might trade a SS to get a catcher (if Salty doesn't begin to hit better). I wonder, too, whether they might install Lowrie at third and use Youk mostly at DH, which would likewise solve the Lowrie -Iglesias conundrum.

    • ChipBuck May 7, 2011 at 7:58 AM #

      While you bring up an excellent point about a superior offense being able to carry on offensive zero, I don't think it's in anyone's best interest to have a rally killer in the lineup. If Iglesias can produce at the .300 wOBA level with great defense, then we're fine. If he can't, it's better off for both parties if he remains in the minors.

      As for the Youk to DH and Lowrie to 3B, that's not a terrible idea. I think the Red Sox will want to see how Youk plays at 3B this year at least before making a decision. If he's a league average third baseman, it doesn't really make sense to move him off of the field.

  3. Adam Dupont May 6, 2011 at 12:13 PM #

    With Drew's contract up at the end of the year, and if Lowrie keeps hitting, would it be difficult to shift him over to right field?

    • ChipBuck May 7, 2011 at 8:01 AM #

      You know, I've thought about the possibility of the Sox making Lowrie a super utility guy in the mold of Ben Zobrist, but I don't think they like the idea too much. I don't think it would be too difficult to shift him over, but with the amount of ground there is to cover in RF (it's like a second CF), I don't know how well it would work.

      It's not a bad idea, and it's one worth at least entertaining.

  4. Chris May 8, 2011 at 12:32 AM #

    What about letting Ortiz walk after this season and installing Lowrie as DH/utility? It would address the concern of too many left handed bats, provide flexibility and power at the DH position, and save cash. Ortiz was dissapointed about not getting a multi year extension after last season and would likely go elswhere if more years are offered. I dont see Theo going past one year of even offering that. He really does not look that much more powerful than Lowrie at this point anyway.

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