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Seeing error of ways, Sox designate Lugo

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / July 18, 2009
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TORONTO - The signs were there for nearly six weeks, ever since a botched defensive play June 5 by Julio Lugo contributed to a loss to the Texas Rangers. But the problems had been there from the start of his exorbitant contract with the Red Sox, as Lugo clearly didn’t demonstrate the skills he had promised. And then yesterday, 2 1/2 years into a four-year, $36 million project, Lugo’s tenure ended nearly as badly as it started.

With his days as the starting shortstop long over, his days as a member of the Sox came to a close as the team designated Lugo for assignment. It was the end of a rocky relationship that never seemed quite right. And with the move, which opened up space for Jed Lowrie to return to the roster today, general manager Theo Epstein finally admitted that the signing had been an error.

“I think ownership has been consistent that we’ll do what we need to do to keep the best possible team on the field,’’ Epstein said yesterday. “A sunk cost is a sunk cost. We’re sorry it didn’t work out better with Julio, obviously. But keeping him on the team wasn’t going to change that. Sometimes the best organizations admit their mistakes and they move on. And that’s what we’re doing here.

“This was one of the free agent signings that doesn’t work out. We were paying for past performance, not current performance. That’s the true definition of a mistake, and, as the decision-maker, that’s on me. We’ll just move on and be a better organization having gone through it, and we’ll make better decisions going forward.’’

With the Red Sox likely to eat approximately $13.5 million of Lugo’s remaining contract, that makes about $24.5 million the Epstein regime has had to pay out to nonproducing free agent shortstops (Lugo and Edgar Renteria) after they were no longer with the Red Sox.

Lugo had arrived in Toronto late Thursday night, and Epstein and manager Terry Francona talked to him briefly. They had a more in-depth conversation yesterday. The Sox had simply become more comfortable with having Nick Green and Lowrie split a job that seemed a detriment with Lugo on the field.

Not that that was a new phenomenon.

“It started poorly from before Day 1,’’ Epstein said. “He called us over the winter after we signed him. He said he had a sickness or a stomach issue where he lost 15 or 20 pounds. When he showed up, he lacked a lot of strength and some quickness, but particularly his strength was just gone. It got him off on the wrong foot. He never with us was the player he was with Tampa. We tried a lot of things to get the best out of him.

“We did win a World Series with him as our everyday shortstop, and he did make a lot of contributions to that world championship. That’s not to be lost in the mix. But obviously we’d be fudging the truth to say it worked out the way we envisioned. He just never got on track here, never really got locked in and comfortable, and never played even close to the way we expected.’’

While a team source said the Red Sox have talked to some teams about a deal, with the Sox willing to pay down the salary “significantly,’’ the only hope for the Sox is if multiple teams are interested. Any team with a need at shortstop could, for minimal investment, add one who is batting .284. But that team would have to be willing to take on a set of defensive skills that have eroded since Lugo’s knee surgery during spring training.

The most likely scenario has the Sox going through the seven-day period in which Lugo can be traded, then releasing him if there are no takers. At that point, any team can sign Lugo for the league minimum, with the Sox on the hook for the balance of his salary this year and next.

“If [a trade] can be worked out, great,’’ Epstein said. “Probably good for Julio, good for the club. If not, he’ll be released and can sign wherever he can as a free agent. He was professional about it. I think he understood that it just wasn’t a fit. He wished he played better here, he wished things went better. But they didn’t.’’

Lugo’s roster spot was taken by Mike Lowell yesterday, with Clay Buchholz replacing Aaron Bates, who was sent to Pawtucket. Buchholz is expected to be sent down today to make room for Lowrie.

Never a stellar defensive player, Lugo regressed this season with seven errors in 97 chances. He had done adequately at the plate in his 37 games, but his defense was too problematic to overlook, especially as Green became more comfortable at the position.

Epstein mentioned a couple of players in the organization, including Argenis Diaz and Yamaico Navarro, along with soon-to-be-signed Jose Iglesias and Jose Vinicio, as evidence that the Sox have their shortstop of the future, along with Lowrie. But the team had no stability at the position during Lugo’s tenure.

“You dabble in free agency, sometimes these things happen,’’ Epstein said. “That’s kind of the nature of the beast. We’re trying to grow the organization to a point where we don’t have to go out and get a free agent. We’re probably closer to that point now than we were two or three offseasons ago. This is a lesson learned, for sure.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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