This winter, the Red Sox traded Marco Scutaro for reasons that remain somewhat murky.
Ah, but Scutaro's backup last season, Jed Lowrie, is a pretty good baseball player in his own right!
The Red Sox traded him, too.
They still have two guys who played some shortstop for them last season: 22-year-old Cuban prospect José Iglesias, and 30-year-old Mike Aviles, who came to the club in a deadline trade with the Royals last summer. And in December, the Red Sox added utility infielder Nick Punto, fresh off winning a World Series with the Cardinals.
Each of these supremely talented men brings different skills to the field; none have enough skills to make anyone forget about Marco Scutaro.
Punto's been around for a while, and never started more than 60 games in one season at shortstop. Aviles came up as a shortstop in 2008, shifted mostly to second base in 2010, and mostly to third base in 2011. With both, one is drawn to the conclusion that if they were really good enough to play shortstop regularly, they would have been regularly playing shortstop.
Iglesias can play shortstop regularly. According to Baseball America, "Iglesias is more than capable defensively. He has incredibly quick hands and feet, along with a strong arm, keen instincts and uncanny body control... He's a Gold Glove waiting to happen."
Is Iglesias really in the mix, though? Recently, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said, "Jose Iglesias is a guy who we think really highly of. He may need a little bit more time in Triple-A -- we’ll see how he looks in spring training -- but he’s certainly capable of being a really good major-league shortstop for years to come."
When the Red Sox signed Iglesias in 2009, there was some expectation that he would be a good major-league shortstop, probably in 2012.
There's just one little problem: He probably can't hit. At all.
Not yet, anyway. After a moderately successful half-season with double-A Portland in 2010, Iglesias ran up against triple-A pitching in 2011 and posted a .235/.285/.269 line with Pawtucket. When you figure his Major League Equivalencies, it would be hard to justify giving him a spot in the Red Sox lineup even if he fielded like Ozzie Smith. Which he probably won't, quite.
So it looks like José Iglesias is ticketed for at least another few months in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, swinging at bad pitches and hitting singles.
Which leaves our two utility infielders trying to win playing time at shortstop for one of the richest teams in the Major League Baseball.
Even at 34, Nick Punto is quite probably the better fielder. Mike Aviles is quite probably the better hitter. Oh, but there's one little wrinkle; while Aviles bats right-handed, Punto's a switch-hitter with zero observed platoon splits. With a left-hander on the mound, you certainly might want Aviles' bat in the lineup ... but with a right-hander pitching? Aviles' small advantage as a hitter is balanced, perhaps almost precisely, by Punto's advantage as a fielder.
Oh, and by the way? While Nick Punto's never been an every-day shortstop for a whole season, his numbers as a shortstop have been consistently outstanding. It's possible, if not probable, that he's actually been a Gold Glove-quality shortstop throughout his career, and just hasn't gotten the chance to prove it over the course of a whole season. In part because of managerial decisions, and in part because he's had problems staying healthy.
In fact, Punto's out of action at this very moment because of back stiffness.
Yes, even as I write this and you read it, there are developments. Sort of. In the last four seasons, Nick Punto's been on the Disabled List nine times. Which might throw this whole enterprise into serious question. It might be impossible for him to start more than, say, 70 or 80 games in a season. At shortstop or anywhere else.
Given their current personnel, maybe it's just Mike Aviles most days, or bust. With Punto starting against right-handed starters every so often, when he's not in the hospital. What I would really love to see, though? Aviles replaced by Punto in the late innings when the Red Sox are nursing a small lead. If only because I don't think I've ever seen a manager do that before, with his shortstops.