Aviles – sittingstill.net’s Kelly O’Connor

Let’s be realistic — the Red Sox have shifted into “next-season” mode, and we here at Fire Brand need to start taking a look at what comes ahead. As Fire Brand readies to turn a whopping 10 years old on New Year’s Eve (when did THAT happen?) this is the first time that the blog has needed to look ahead to next season before late September rolled around.

But here we are in late August, and one thought has been perplexing me as of late. Who plays shortstop next season? While Mike Aviles has done a competent job this year, is he really the man moving forward? Let’s take a look at the three internal candidates to man short next year, then we’ll see what else is out there.

Mike Aviles

Aviles can’t get on base or hit contact enough to be considered a quality shortstop, but the fact is that shortstop is so weak these days, he will probably finish the season with a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) over 3. That’s pretty significant and is helped dramatically by his defense. Going into the season, it was felt that Aviles would be at best an average defender, but he’s actually contributed positively with the glove according to Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. Now, on a year-to-year basis, defense can fluctuate both in the player and statistically, so it’s hard to figure out just how good Aviles is. That said, historically, he’s come out looking pretty good on defense for short, so let’s just call him above-average on defense.

Offensively, Aviles has slipped down to being at best average with the bat. He’s essentially established himself as an impatient hitter who will hit in the mid-.250s and retains enough pop to keep pitchers honest. And we haven’t even gotten to his contract yet. Aviles will be arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason, which means he will still remain remarkably affordable, and since his counting statistics are far from impressive, will cost (to the Red Sox, anyways) mere pennies on the dollar.

Pedro Ciriaco

Yeah, Ciriaco has really made an impression since joining the Red Sox. But he’s still only received just 117 plate appearances this year, and he’s got an unsustainably-high batting average on balls in play. His BABIP this year is .400, which means 40 percent of his batted balls are dropping in for hits. Even though Ciriaco’s expected BABIP is .403 — meaning the underlying data supports that BABIP — it’s still far too high to bank on a repeat. In Triple-A, he was actually faring pretty well after failing to impress offensively in the minors the last several years. It’s absolutely possible, if not likely, that Ciriaco has made real progress as a hitter.

We simply need more data for Ciriaco, and any justification of the spindly hitter being the shortstop of the future will come down to the scouts’ evaluation of him. We just don’t know enough right now, but we do know he has quality defense and can play all over the diamond if needed. I am entirely uncomfortable with projecting Ciriaco as next season’s starting shortstop, especially because I can’t possibly see anyone with as poor plate discipline as Ciriaco sustaining a high batting average through the entire season. In his career, Ciriaco has a 1.9 percent walk rate in 157 plate appearances. In the farm, he’s also exhibited poor walk rates over the last several years. Over the last three years, the lowest walk rate of any qualified hitter has been 3.3 percent, belonging to Yuniesky Betancourt. The only other player under four percent in that time period is A.J. Pierzynski, who has had a solid career. Simply put, Ciriaco’s walk rate is wholly unsustainable, as he would have to double his current production just to match Betancourt. He’s been a great story for 2012, but he’s just not an option.

Jose Iglesias

Iglesias is a popular name of the internal candidates to be the shortstop next season. He started the year rather poorly with the bat but has made strides as of lately. Are those strides enough to hack it in the majors? His overall line is .269/.321/.309, but he’s hitting .348 in August. That could just be a hot streak, granted, but it’ll be enough to ensure Iglesias of a callup in September to showcase himself. That said, given his obvious need to show sustained production with the bat and Boston having one more option year on the youngster after the season, I have a hard time believing he opens next season as the starting shortstop, as amazing as his defense might be. He might still be the shortstop of the future, but given the lack of separation he’s put between himself and Aviles — or even Ciriaco — there’s no reason for the Sox not to use the option remaining and hope he continues to improve in Pawtucket in 2013.

So, that’s it for internal options. As you can probably tell given my recaps of the three players, I endorse Aviles as the starting shortstop next year. He’s got the best bet to have the better offense of the three, and his defense is quality enough to withstand the challenges of Ciriaco and Iglesias. He’s also got quite an affordable contract. But that actually boosts his trade value, and I could easily see Cherington cashing Aviles in for a pitcher or some other position of need and going with defense at short.

Let’s take a look at who else might be available, based on my perusal of free agents to be or those that might be had in trade…

Elvis Andrus

This is purely speculative. The Rangers’ shortstop is signed through 2014, having inked a three-year, $14.4 million deal prior to the season. He’s a defensive whiz and while he might lack strong power, he hits for a solid average and gets on base. His .299/.367/.394 figure for a shortstop is more than impressive and he’s already cracked 4 WAR for the season. A hot finish might see him at five, so this is a very valuable player that would cost a ransom. But Texas has a once-in-a-generation star that they could install at short next season in Jurickson Profar. (They can also elect to move Andrus or Profar off shortstop and keep both.) Depending on Texas’ needs, Andrus could be made available. If Josh Hamilton leaves in free agency and Jacoby Ellsbury finishes the year strong, it’s not unreasonable to see a framework deal structured around Andrus and Ellsbury. This is a pipe dream for now, but is probably the best-case scenario for Boston.

Stephen Drew

The younger brother of J.D. (who we love at Fire Brand but not by Sox fans as a whole) was just dealt to Oakland in a cost-saving move by Arizona. Drew began the year hurt and has struggled to get his footing underneath him offensively since. However, the 29-year-old has a career line of .266/.328/.435 with average defense. You might even consider him the rich man’s version of Aviles. Oakland won’t touch his $10 million mutual option next year, so he’s going to hit free agency. While he’ll fetch a strong price, he won’t break the bank, so the Sox have a chance at grabbing Drew. That said, I’m not sure the value going from Aviles to Drew is worth the cost investment it would take. Other than a 5.1 WAR season in 2010, he’s racked up 6.6 WAR in essentially six full seasons and change.

Yunel Escobar

The Blue Jays appear to be souring on Escobar, who was once a highly-regarded young shortstop who is now on the verge of wearing out his welcome with two teams. Putting aside whether it would be a good idea to trade for someone who has a negative label attached to his makeup, Escobar has been worse than Aviles this season and is due $5 million next season, with two $5 million club options in 2014 and 2015. Unless Boston sees something there that makes them believe Escobar can rebound into the quality player he was in 2009 and 2011, it’s best to avoid Escobar.

Alex Gonzalez

The former Red Sox was off to a promising start with the Brewers before injuring himself for the year. He should be ready for spring training and available at a reasonable price, but entering his age 36 year, it’s fair to wonder if his bat can still keep up, and if he’s still an excellent fielder. Losing the entire year save for April really hurts our ability from our armchairs to evaluate him. It’s difficult to pass judgement on whether Gonzalez could be a fit. Given the need of shortstops across the league, he’d likely find a team willing to give him more of a guarantee than Boston would given the club’s relative depth at the position, so as intriguing as Sea Bass might be, he’s probably not a fit. It would take a trade of Aviles for Boston to become a legitimate contender for his services. For what it’s worth, in full-time duty for the Braves in 2011, he was essentially Aviles at the plate with (statistically) worse defense than Aviles.

Jed Lowrie

Houston had Lowrie on the trade block virtually all year, and he probably would have been moved at the deadline had he not been felled by injury. He impressed during his time with the Astros, hitting .253/.343/.456, but his defense was merely average. The Red Sox would probably love to have Lowrie back, but he’s been dinged up a lot in his short career, as we all remember. This is a real option for Boston, but there will be plenty of other teams in the hunt for his services. He’s expected to return in late September, which would give teams an opportunity to evaluate him leading into the offseason — but he reportedly hasn’t recovered well, so who knows. Of all the names we’ve explored so far, I’d peg Lowrie as the second-most valuable behind Andrus. But is Ben Cherington willing to essentially admit he made a mistake in trading Lowrie by re-acquiring the shortstop for more than he took to trade him away?

Tyler Pastornicky

Pastornicky looks to have lost his standing as the shortstop of the future with the Braves. He opened the year as the starter, but was demoted to Triple-A after hitting .248/.281/.324 as even his good defense couldn’t save him. Even when replacement Andrelton Simmons got hurt, Pastornicky didn’t return to his role and has instead played sparingly as a backup. Pastornicky is just 22, so it would be worth a shot to acquire him, but by the same vein, the Braves wouldn’t be interested in giving up someone fairly highly regarded without concrete value in return. He still has a bright future as a league-average regular, whether at short or second base. The Braves won’t trade him at the nadir of his value.

Cliff Pennington

Pennington used to be a fairly solid shortstop for the A’s but crash-landed this year, which is why Oakland just grabbed Stephen Drew. He lost all his ability to hit, entering the season with a career .259/.324/.371 line but nosedived to .198/.26/.284. With an expected BABIP of .291, Pennington should be hitting far better than he was, and while he may not be hitting the ball with as much authority as he used to, he’s also been unlucky this year. He may have worn out his welcome on Oakland, so might present a savvy pickup for Boston. Defensive metrics are a bit unclear for Pennington, so we’ll call him roughly average. If the Red Sox believe Pennington can rebound to hit .279/.342/.418 (his line in 2009) then it makes sense to grab him. Other than that, though, Pennington is no clear upgrade over Aviles.

Jhonny Peralta

Peralta has horrible defense at short. While he’s had success offensively in the past, he’s tailed off this year. There’s no way Boston sniffs Peralta thanks to his defense. His offense just isn’t good enough to offset his lousy defense. Unless Detroit can’t find another shortstop and picks up his team option for 2013, this might be his last season behind the dish. Interestingly, defense statistics like him a lot, but in this case, the fact he’s a poor defender at short has been widely held for some time now. In addition, it appears his improvement has come in a Detroit uniform, so they must be deploying him differently to hide his defensive shortcomings, and even the addition of Miguel Cabrera at third hasn’t changed that.

So where does that leave us?

Surprisingly, it appears that Aviles might be the best option.

In a perfect world, Andrus would don red socks, but that would likely come at the cost of Ellsbury. His production would have to be replaced in center or right field, so the Sox would have to shell out significant dollars for a free-agent outfielder. Overpaying Cody Ross doesn’t seem smart to me, and Nick Swisher might Nick Swisher-worth/”>be looking at six years, $100 million. Josh Hamilton will ask significant dollars and is injury-prone. Is going from Aviles to Andrus worth losing Ellsbury (and a first-round pick the team would gain if he walks as a free agent)? Debatable.

Putting Andrus aside, is there anyone else that right now, looks like they could be better than Aviles at shortstop? Barring what would be a rather unlikely trade for a quality shortstop not listed here, I’m going to say no.

Discuss in the comments. Later today, we’ll have a poll for you asking who the 2013 shortstop should be.