THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

No defense for latest move

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / November 28, 2009

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Here’s one thing we can say about Alex Gonzalez.

The ball is hit to short and you can write “6-3’’ in your scorebook without looking up. It’s a done deal.

So why won’t he be here next year? Did anyone ask the pitchers what they think?

Instead of Alex Gonzalez and the sure 6-3s, we will have a familiar player at short next year. Mr. X.

Mr. X might be Marco Scutaro or Khalil Greene or even Jed Lowrie (if he ever cures his wrist woes), or it could be someone off our radar screen entirely. But it’s doubtful Mr. X will be as soothing to the psyche of the pitchers as Alex Gonzalez, who was the best 162-game defensive shortstop I’ve ever seen in a Red Sox uniform back in 2006 and who wasn’t far from that status during the 44 games he played here in 2009. There’s a lot to be said for relaxing 6-3s, not to mention efficient 6-4-3s and 4-6-3s.

Shortstop is general manager Theo Epstein’s Achilles’ heel, his Black Hole, his annual source of confusion and occasional embarrassment. He hasn’t gotten it right for more than one full season since his bold decision to ship Nomar Garciaparra out of town on July 31, 2004. Gonzalez gave him that aforementioned stellar defensive season in 2006. Aside from that, Theo has had zero luck.

There was, of course, nothing wrong with the way Orlando Cabrera played for the Red Sox, either during the months of August and September or during the playoffs in 2004. He was 29 years old and appeared to be The Answer at short for many years to come. But the Red Sox did not seem too upset about losing him to the Angels via free agency, the only reason anyone could come up with being unspecified off-the-field, shall we say, indiscretions

Theo next addressed the shortstop situation by wooing Edgar Renteria away from the St. Louis Cardinals for a hefty $10 million per. Tony La Russa warned everyone that Renteria and Boston might not be a good fit because Edgar was way too sensitive to thrive in the hothouse atmosphere of Boston, and, indeed, all of New England.

Playing for the Cardinals is akin to being back in high school. You get unconditional fan love as long as you wear the uniform with the Cardinals teeter-tottering on the baseball bat. We all know there is no such thing here. Some people (e.g. Big Papi) are allowed to bank an enormous amount of good will to insulate them during the hard times, but most players who play here know the normal deal is that people take things seriously and, worse yet, personally on a day-to-day basis.

Renteria was a bad fielder here almost from Day 1. A balky back had something to do with it, but the fans didn’t want to hear about it. He was actually a more productive offensive player than people recall (scoring 100 runs for the first time), but he was exceedingly unpopular and personally miserable. Theo was very fortunate to find a home for him in Atlanta.

Gonzalez was a dream defensive solution to the problem the following year, but the Red Sox did not like his low on-base percentage and did not want to pay him. The next move was perhaps Theo’s worst decision ever. He consigned $36 million of ownership’s money in a four-year contract to Julio Lugo, a once-upon-a-time decent hitting shortstop and generally fair-to-bad fielder whom the Dodgers had come to loathe (as a player) in a very short period of time.

In his first half-year as a Red Sox, Lugo was, arguably, the worst offensive regular in the American League, and an even worse defensive player. Things never really got much better. Did they win a second World Series in four years with him as their shortstop? Yes, they did. Or would it be more correct to say they won despite him? Probably.

Lowrie entered into the mix in 2008. He’s a thoroughly likable and rootable young man. But he is a switch-hitter who has not proven he can hit as a lefthander in the majors and he cannot stay healthy, so the Red Sox can’t count on him for anything. Journeyman Nick Green gave them all he had for a spell last year, and he did make what might have been baseball’s most astonishing defensive play of the year (the rollover 6-3 double play against Washington), but too many expected 6-3s wound up with a man on first (or even second) and Theo finally had to do something.

That something was a deal with the Reds for Alex Gonzalez, who was A) everything we remembered in the field, B) a surprisingly productive hitter, and C) pretty cost effective. I figured that even if they had to overpay him a little to re-sign him he was well worth it. He’d be playing 2010 at age 33, and many a good shortstop has gone deep into his 30s while playing at a very high level. Omar Vizquel, for example, just signed with the White Sox for another year at age 42.

I figured wrong. The Red Sox did not take aggressive steps to retain him. They cannot possibly think they’ll do better defensively with someone else in 2010. If it’s the on-base obsession, hey, it’s an imperfect world. And since when were comfortable 6-3s a trivial matter? Wasn’t that why Nomar was traded in the first place?

They’re telling us there is a wunderkind in the organization named Jose Iglesias who will some day be putting those comfortable 6-3s in the scorebook. He’s 19. He’s way off in the future. If I’m Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Dice-K, or the Papster, I’m thinking, “What good will that do me in 2010?’’

I could always be missing something here. Do you have any idea what it is?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of the Globe’s 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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