Because Jed Lowrie?s best stretch as a major leaguer coincided with some injury-related struggles for Marco Scutaro, and because it happened at the end of the 2010 season, it is fresh in our minds. Therefore, it?s easy to make a blanket statement handing Lowrie the job as the Red Sox starting shortstop.
Manager Terry Francona isn?t paid to make blanket statements. He?s paid to use his best judgment in both short- and long-term situations, and by declaring that Scutaro is his starting shortstop to start the upcoming year he has done his job well.
The case for the blanket statement, and choosing Lowrie over Scutaro, is a pretty good one. The former is 26, the latter 35. The former finished last year healthy and on fire. The latter was first moved from shortstop to second base because a sore shoulder prevented him from making the long throws, and then shelved altogether in order to get a jump on an offseason throwing program designed to build up some strength.
Lowrie has every right to aim for the job. However, the case for Scutaro is also solid. In fact, it?s not even really a case for Scutaro, it?s more a support for the role in which Lowrie is best served, at least from a team perspective. Francona said as much Thursday night at the BBWAA dinner in downtown Boston.
"[Lowrie] has the ability to play four different infield positions," Francona told reporters. "So rather than worry about an infield competition, because Scutaro is our shortstop, this guy gives us something that I don?t know how many teams can say they have.
"A switch hitter that can play first, second, third or short, and play a lot. He can play for a week, he can play for a day, he can play for two weeks. At some point [he] is going to probably save us. How many times have you seen where everybody stays healthy?"
Surely, the 2010 season and its onslaught of injuries is ripe in Francona?s mind. He knows that declaring anyone a starting anything does not lock them in for 162 games, and Lowrie is a security blanket in case the same scenario occurs. There are myriad other reasons that Lowrie would be more valuable in that super-utility role. Let?s consider a few.
To begin with, in addition to Scutaro, the three other starting infielders are also returning from some kind of physical ailment. They expect to be at 100 percent by Opening Day, but it?s not out of the realm of possibility that Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis may need a day off or two here and there. Lowrie would be their replacement and play one position (second base) at which he improved last season and another (third base) at which Francona feels he is best suited.
Additionally, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is not expected to even swing a bat for another 40 days or so. Lowrie proved last season that he can at least handle that position as well and is expected to see plenty of time there in spring training, just in case Gonzalez is slow to make progress.
As Francona said himself on Thursday night when speaking of Gonzalez: "He'll be behind everyone else for sure."
Lowrie can spell each of those guys, plus Scutaro, whenever it is necessary from a physical standpoint. And on a club loaded with left-handed bats, including a few (David Ortiz, J.D. Drew and Carl Crawford) who do struggle vs. southpaws, Lowrie represents one of the best options team-wide in those situations. He is a .324 career hitter with a .944 OPS against lefties, numbers that dwarf those of many of his more-heralded teammates. Lowrie won?t pinch hit for those guys often, if at all, but inserting him somewhere when a lefty is on the mound and allowing someone like Youkilis to DH for a day just adds to Francona?s options.
Also, let?s not act as if Scutaro is chop meat. When Scutaro was healthy last year he was a pretty good player, a fact that might be lost in the way in which the season ended, both for him and for his primary competition at shortstop. Scutaro did a commendable job filling in for the injured Jacoby Ellsbury in the leadoff spot, keeping his average in the .280s for much of the year and doing nothing to hurt his reputation as a clutch hitter — he hit .294 with seven of his 11 home runs from the seventh inning on.
The term "utility player" seems to carry with it a stigma. It?s not as if Lowrie should wear a scarlet "U" and receive little praise. His versatility and ability to produce with the bat will make him just as valuable in that sort of role, even more so if the injuries pile high once again and, as Francona implied, Lowrie is there to save the day.