It sounds weird to say that the Sox have made a move in order to clear salary, but that’s essentially what they did on Saturday when they sent their former starting shortstop, Marco Scutaro, to the Colorado Rockies for 26-year-old righthander Clayton Mortensen. Mortensen has a career 4.74 xFIP and offers little upside with regard to his strikeout potential. He has also displayed inconsistent command throughout his career. His one bright spot is a 51 percent career ground ball rate, which means that he at least has a chance to be an above replacement level pitcher in 2012 should his HR/FB rate fall due to a move away from Coors Field. He does have one minor league option remaining, which means the Sox could stash him there to start the season.
The biggest part of this deal is the move that is yet to come. By moving Scutaro’s $6M salary the Sox now have some room to progress toward adding a much-needed starting pitcher like Roy Oswalt. Oswalt has been heavily linked to the Sox in rumors and he’s apparently seeking a one-year deal for around $8M. The Sox have also shown interest in White Sox hurler Gavin Floyd, who will make $7M with a $9.5M club option for 2013.
Right now, the Sox have Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz slotted as their top three starters with Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves potentially moving into the rotation. However, counting on either or both relievers to throw a full season worth of a starter’s innings would be foolhardy. Adding another starter and continuing to add pitching depth is clearly the priority for this team, even if it comes at the expense of a 2-3 WAR shortstop.
To replace Scutaro, the Sox will likely go with the tandem of Mike Aviles and scrappy-mc-scrapster Nick Punto at short. Aviles has played over 1200 career innings at short and has graded out well there according to advanced metrics (7.5 UZR/150). However, before last season Aviles did not grade out well according to FanGraphs‘ Fan Scouting Report, which rated him as having below average instincts, well below average hands, average arm strength and below average throwing accuracy. Overall, Aviles rated as a 43 out of 100 according to the Fans Scouting Report rating. Nick Punto, on the other hand, has always graded out well in both advanced metrics (10.1 UZR/150) and via the Fans Scouting Report (rated as a 67 out of 100 last season).
Offensively, the two players could not be more different. Aviles is a career .288 hitter, but has been highly inconsistent from year-to-year. He also is an extreme free swinger (4.2 percent career walk rate and 33 percent career chase rate) who has a career .318 OBP. However, Aviles can hit the long ball a little bit (seven home runs in 309 plate appearances last season) and steal a few bases (14 stolen bases last season). The fact that Aviles is a pull hitter could help his production in Fenway park. Below is an image of Aviles’s hits from Kaufman Stadium last season, laid over Fenway Park’s dimensions (source).
While the data is unofficial, it seems that Aviles would have gained a few more home runs or doubles if he had played all of his home games in Fenway last season. The Bill James projection calls for a .279/.311/.423 line with eight home runs and 11 stolen bases in 333 plate appearances. Not great, but not all that bad either.
On the other hand we have Nick Punto, who is a career .249 hitter with almost no power. Despite the low career AVG, Punto has really learned how to draw walks as evident in his 13 percent walk rate over the last three seasons. Last season, in a small sample of 166 plate appearances, Punto posted an excellent .388 OBP.
Of course, there is one more option to consider and that is the very young defensive wizard Jose Iglesias. While Iglesias would be a huge asset defensively, he’s clearly not ready with the bat and very well might never be. Last season at Triple-A, Iglesias put up an extremely weak line of .235/.285/.269. Granted, he was extremely young for the level, but to be honest, I don’t think that would have mattered much, since he hasn’t hit at any level. That being said, the fact that the Sox have pushed Iglesias so aggressively through their system tells me that they want his defense in the big leagues as soon as possible, regardless of the bat. Former big league shortstop Rey Ordonez, who had a career slash line of .246/.289/.310, played such great defense that he rated as an above replacement level player despite his bat. The Sox are hoping for the same with Iglesias. Whether that transition comes this season or not is yet to be seen.
There is no question that the Sox traded away a valuable player in Marco Scutaro, but they probably didn’t give up much ground defensively overall, especially on days when Punto starts, and both Aviles and Punto should do enough at the plate to cover much of what Scutaro would have given with the bat. The more important move is the one sure to come. The Sox would not have made this trade if they didn’t have another impact move in their sights. Whether that next move is Roy Oswalt or Gavin Floyd or something else, it’s almost guaranteed to be a move that helps this team’s starting rotation, which should prove much more valuable than what the 36-year-old former Red Sox shortstop would have provided.