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Giving Away Julio Lugo

When the Red Sox signed Julio Lugo to a four-year, 36 million dollar contract in winter 2006, Theo Epstein assumed he was getting the player who hit .284/.348/.405 over the previous season. Two and a half seasons and more than 20 million later, Lugo is on the outs in Boston. Reports have Boston willing to eat the contract and take on a fringe prospect in exchange for the roster spot. That’s quite the fall from grace for someone who looked like the cream of the crop not long ago.

Lugo has actually hit better this season than in his other two seasons with Boston. That’s not saying much, and his career line with Boston is still .251/.319/.346. Defensively, Lugo hasn’t been much better in Boston, posting UZR/150 of 4.3, -2.6, and -43.2. Okay, obviously the last one is due to an extremely small sample size; if you assume he’s more like -10 than -43, you get the picture of a below average defensive shortstop, but hardly the worst in the majors.

What happened to him? His ISO has sat well below .100 the past two seasons after never touching .105 or lower the rest of his major league career. His walk rates are still quite solid, same with his strikeout rates. His BABIP hit a rough spell in 2007 but has since bounced back fine. He hit a lot of grounders last season, and now he’s hitting a lot more fliners. Lugo’s tendency to hit a home run has all but vanished. He still makes contact, doesn’t swing out of zone, and he’s seeing fewer balls in the zone.

The only thing that makes sense is that Lugo’s physical skills have decayed. He is a shortstop in his mid-30s, but he’s also hovering around replacement level. ZiPS projects Lugo to hit league average, and depending on where he plays on defense, he shouldn’t be that poor. Maybe Lugo’s body has decided enough is enough, or he really misses playing with his brother (Ruddy Lugo was his teammate during his time in Tampa Bay) or he simply doesn’t feel comfortable in Boston and never did.

If Boston is covering most of the salary and willing to take back just about anything to clear the roster spot, teams have done a lot worse than taking on Lugo and winding up with an average bat and probably below average glove at either middle infield position.