BASEBALL - RED SOX;Lowrie may be key to the infield puzzle
(Fourth of a six-part series on the outlook for the 2011 Red Sox. Today: the infield)
The expectation is that Dustin Pedroia, Marco Scutaro and Kevin Youkilis will return to the Red Sox as good as new in 2011. Injuries decimated the Red Sox infield in 2010, but the real problem will be replacing Adrian Beltre, who isn't expected to exercise his $10 million player option in favor of seeking a long-term deal that the Sox won't offer.
The Sox will have to find a new third baseman, along with backups - roles Bill Hall and Eric Patterson helped fill during the now-completed, lost season.
The key player for the Sox next season, though, could be Jed Lowrie. Hard to believe given that his struggles of the past couple of years - first because of a wrist injury that required surgery and, last year, because he contracted mononucleosis he - pretty much relegating him to a couch before he began to gradually regain his strength and stamina.
Fact is, while Lowrie perhaps doesn't command the respect and presence of some of his more famous and seasoned teammates, he has performed at a high level when healthy, and if the Sox don't feel he can be their full-time third baseman, he'd certainly deserve consideration as the top infield backup given that he has played each position, and well.
Lowrie would solidify the once-vaunted Sox infield defense. In 168 major league games he has made only eight errors. He made just one error in 2010. Offensively, he has a knack for coming up with big hits. Twice late in the 2010 season he stroked two home runs in a single game. As a rookie in 2008 he had 25 doubles and 46 RBI in 260 at-bats, plus 35 walks. His career marks against left-handers: .324 BA, .403 OBP and .541 SLG.
So if Lowrie can return healthy to spring training, the Sox might have an unexpected, cheap solution to filling the void left by Beltre's expected departure. Or he could be a strong bargaining chip in a trade.
"You never know what's going to happen," Lowrie said. "This is a crazy game. I'm just going to prepare to be an everyday player and see what happens."
The main thing for him is to continue working to make himself an everyday player again.
"I feel good. I still feel like I'm continuing to get stronger," he said. "But I'm happy with the way that I played and the way my body responded. Like I said, you never know what's going to happen during the offseason."
"He has some rare offensive skills," said Sox GM Theo Epstein. "He's a player who can carve a real career for himself as an above-average offensive player in the infield. He had a real uncertain first half of the season (he was recalled on July 7) with his health and . the wrist thing that's lingered for a couple of years, with the mono, and to get where he was back in May to where he is now, feeling good about himself and having everybody feel good about him, is a big accomplishment. He was a very good, very consistent player through the second half of the season who opened a lot of eyes and is fulfilling the promise that he's had for a long time."
The Sox are making several assumptions about their infield as they prepare for next season. Aside from the belief that Lowrie's health will improve, they're likely planning on life without Beltre, as well. They assume that Marco Scutaro, who had to shift to second base late in the season because of his inflamed rotator cuff, will be fine after several weeks of rest and rehab. They have no doubt that Dustin Pedroia, who played in only 75 games, will have overcome the foot surgery that repaired a broken bone. Likewise, Kevin Youkilis has already begun working on the left thumb injury that limited him to 102 games.
"So I think we know what we have coming back," Epstein said. "You can more or less quantify how much was injury and how much was underperformance on a team level. I wish we could go back and play this thing over with the team we have and just look at the performances ..t. You add Youk and Jacoby (Ellsbury) and Pedroia to some of the things we accomplished, I feel like things would have turned out differently, but it makes it challenging, but not impossible. I think you kind of know what you have. It doesn't mean it's all coming back."
Lowrie, meanwhile, is in the same boat as his more experienced fellow infielders. "I think this would be the first time in a while going into the offseason where I felt like I've been healthy," he said, "so get some good work in and be ready for next year."
Mike Fine may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org