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New Kid on the (Trade) Block: Jed Lowrie

With Marco Scutaro keeping shortstop warm for Jose Iglesias — and Dustin Pedroia firmly entrenched at the keystone — new Red Sox GM Ben Cherington has an ace up his sleeve with Jed Lowrie. Keith Law noted this week that the Sox are in an enviable position, “with a slight surplus in the middle infield that could be amplified in a market where there’s more demand for shortstops than there is supply.”

Per usual, Law is spot-on in his analysis. Despite a rough 2011 that saw Lowrie race to an April OPS of .962 before sputtering to his season-ending .685 mark, there remains a good chance that Cherington can pull very good value should he engineer a swap this offseason — if only on the premise that Lowrie’s best years are still ahead of him. With Lowrie set to turn 28 just after Opening Day, this doesn’t seem like such a bad bet if one wagers his fast start in 2011 was merely a continuation of his torrid 2010 pace, which saw him hit .287/.381/.526 (.393 wOBA) with a 1:1 K/BB rate. He also enjoyed less-defined platoon splits than the rest of his big-league career.

Lowrie, a bit of an anomaly as a college second baseman-turned shortstop, was one of many well-regarded Red Sox prospects who gained notoriety for the club in the mid- to late-2000s. While on the farm, Lowrie proved capable with the stick (.286/.381/.486 line) while playing a decent, if unspectacular, shortstop. The bat has come and gone — as has playing time — in the majors, but his glove has been relatively steady, even as Lowrie has seen extended periods of action across the infield. This certainly bodes well for a young man whose bat has rarely been questioned.

Astute general managers will want to buy low on Lowrie after a rough 2011, but Cherington no doubt is wise to the pratfalls that limited Lowrie through his difficult season. For one, a nagging left shoulder injury might be to blame for Lowrie’s uncharacteristic platoon splits. For instance, Lowrie’s 2011 splits showed an .876/.582 split (versus RHP/LHP), which are well below his career marks of .919/.635. Given that Lowrie’s seen fewer than 1,000 plate appearances, spread over four big-league seasons, I think it’s somewhat reasonable to file the huge splits under the statistical-noise header. After all, despite these drastic splits in the major leagues, Lowrie’s minor-league splits aren’t nearly as discrepant. Perhaps with regular playing time, Lowrie’s numbers might have an opportunity to even out.

One more selling point that could work in Cherington’s favor is Jacoby Ellsbury’s 2011 season. Ellsbury was also coming off a disastrous, injury-marred year at roughly the same age when he obliterated his career-highs in pretty much every offensive category and made a very compelling claim as the American League’s most valuable player. Of course, Ellsbury was a much more highly regarded prospect — peaking at 13th on Baseball America’s prospect list, while Lowrie checked in at 73 at his best. But if Cherington and the Sox brass would have learned anything, it’s that what you see is not always what you get.

In fact, the projections for Lowrie are glowing, especially if Bill James is to be trusted. James projects Lowrie as .271/.348/.437, which would be good for a .341 wOBA. For some context, that would have ranked sixth in the AL in 2011 among shortstops with 250-plus PA. Not bad for an extra tool lying around in the ol’ shed. I’m no mathemagician, but assuming average glovework from Lowrie — to go with that wOBA — he could project to be about a four-win shortstop. And that’s something that makes hefty cash on the open market.