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:
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?
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:
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.