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Shortstop Position Battle: Scutaro vs. Lowrie

For a team with a payroll as large as, and a roster with as many star caliber players as the Red Sox have, you wouldn’t expect them to have many position battles, if any. Their shortstop position isn’t exactly a true battle in the sense that Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie are in direct competition for the job this spring, but with two qualified candidates, it’s no guarantee either player will hold down the job for the entire season. What does that mean for your fantasy team?

Scutaro, the $5M incumbent, hit .275/.333/.388 (.319 wOBA) with 11 homers in his inaugural season with Boston, battling a pinched nerve in his neck and a shoulder issue that hampered him basically all season. It was quite a fall from his .379 OBP, .354 wOBA, 14 SB effort with the Blue Jays in 2009, as his walk rate got cut nearly in half (13.2% vs. 7.6%) and both his ground ball and infield fly ball rates climbed four percent, give or take. That’s a good way to decrease your power output, though Scutaro was never a big power guy to big with, and he did get some help from the Green Monster (.443 wOBA to LF in 2010 vs. .403 career).

Lowrie, on the other hand, enjoyed a breakout one-third season in 2010, hitting .287/.381/.526 with nine homers and the same number of walks (25) as strikeouts in just 197 plate appearances. He played pretty much every day, either at second or short, following Dustin Pedroia‘s foot injury. A switch-hitter, Lowrie did most of his damage against left-handers (.442 wOBA vs. .362), though the sample sizes are miniscule. If nothing else, it’s worth noting because Scutaro is a right-handed batter and better against southpaws as well, so a platoon doesn’t really make sense. It’s always possible, just unlikely.

Most of the time, when a 26-year-old (27 in April) middle infielder hits like Lowrie did down the stretch in 2010, he’d be the slam dunk starter going into the next season. The Red Sox, however, are looking at him in more of a super-sub role this spring, having him get playing time at all the infield spots, including first base. Scutaro has experience playing all over the field already, so he really doesn’t need that exposure. The question mark with both guys is health. Scutaro’s coming off the neck trouble and shoulder problems that were serious enough to limit him to second base late in the year just to make the throws easier. Lowrie had wrist surgery in early 2009 and battled mononucleosis last year, limiting him to just 412 plate appearances since 2008. If one of the two gets hurt, then the other takes over as starter, it really is that simple.

The projection systems have Scutaro essentially repeating his 2010 effort almost exactly, which was solid but not great. Bill James (.363 wOBA) is the high man on Lowrie, Marcel the low (.336). With a full season’s worth of playing time, both guys could chip in double-digit homers, Lowrie might approach 20. Neither will steal many bases, and Scutaro’s the much safer bet when it comes to projecting batting average just because of his longer track record. Both players have 2B and SS eligibility, and there’s a non-zero chance they’d pick up 3B eligibility in some kind of utility role. You’d essentially be trading predictability for upside by going Scutaro over Lowrie.

My guess is that Scutaro starts the season as the team’s regular shortstop, but is eventually replaced by Lowrie at some point in the summer. Until then, Lowrie might be a guy who starts twice a week at some random infield spot and occasionally pinch-hits, so he’ll be cheap in the early going. I’m quit bullish on him, and could see a .280 AVG with 12 HR in the second half if this scenario plays out.