Improving Defense a Must for Red Sox in 2010

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Improving Defense a Must for Red Sox in 2010 In what was, at the time, the defining moment of Theo Epstein's career, the general manager sat at a podium on July 31, 2004, and explained to a bewildered Red Sox fan base why its favorite son was leaving town.

"We lost a great player in Nomar Garciaparra, but we've made our club more functional," Epstein said. "We weren't going to win a World Series with our defense."

And so it came to pass that the Red Sox, with their improved defense, won the first of two World Series titles this decade. But they did not win in 2009, and the lack of defense was a major culprit.

The Red Sox ranked 28th out of 30 in defensive efficiency in 2009, converting just 67.9 percent of balls in play into outs. Mike Lowell (-10.6), Jason Bay (-13.9) and Jacoby Ellsbury (-16.5) were among the worst at their positions in Ultimate Zone Rating, a metric used to measure a fielder's ability to turn batted balls into outs.

Conversely, the most recent Red Sox title team in 2007 led baseball in defensive efficiency. So as Epstein enters another critical period in his Red Sox tenure, defensive improvement remains a key area of concern.

"There are a lot of different ways to get better," Epstein said last month, after the Red Sox were quickly swept out of the postseason. "Defense this year hasn't been what we wanted it to be and what we expected it to be. It's an area of focus for us trying to improve it and work around it."

Epstein began that process in August, reacquiring sure-handed Alex Gonzalez — his full-time shortstop in 2006 — to provide much-needed stability at the position. And Epstein said at the team's October postmortem news conference that Gonzalez, for whom the team holds a $6 million option, could be the answer in 2010.

"Certainly, one way we could go is bringing him back," Epstein said. "I think we'd all be comfortable having him back here under the right circumstances"

That means the Red Sox are willing to bring back Gonzalez (UZR 4.4), but not for $6 million. If the Red Sox choose to improve themselves defensively via trade, an intriguing possibility would be Milwaukee's J.J. Hardy, who is young (27), has shown previous offensive potential before slumping in 2009 and has a career UZR of 10.2.

But shortstop might not be the biggest infield concern. Coming off hip surgery that robbed him of speed and mobility, Lowell could still make plays on balls hit at him, but his defensive range was severely curtailed, ranking second-to-last in baseball — ahead of only David Wright — in UZR.

Lowell, 36 in February, has one year left on his three-year deal. A year removed from surgery, it is possible Lowell will regain some of his mobility. But if the Red Sox are unwilling to take that risk, a solution could come from one of their Division Series foils: Chone Figgins, who ranked third in baseball last season with a UZR of 14.5.

Figgins, a solid OBP contributor (.298 batting average, .395 on-base percentage in 2009) with 42 stolen bases, is also a Type B free agent, meaning he would not cost the Red Sox a draft pick, if signed.

One problem that doesn't figure to go away is limiting the Figginses of the world on the basepaths. The Red Sox were last in baseball in stolen bases allowed (151) and caught stealing percentage (13 percent).

The primary culprit was Jason Varitek, who allowed 108 stolen bases over 124 chances. But his replacement, Victor Martinez, was even worse in 30 games for the Red Sox, throwing out just two runners in 19 chances (11 percent). Hopefully, as the everyday catcher in 2010, Martinez can find some of his 2007-08 form, when he threw out 33 percent (46-for-138) of his would-be stealers.

NESN.com will be answering one Red Sox question every day in November.

Tuesday, Nov. 3: If the Red Sox don't re-sign Jason Bay, who are the best alternatives to play left field?
 
Thursday, Nov. 5: Who will be the Red Sox' starting shortstop in 2010?

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